on October 14th, 2011

It happened in a flash, a few months ago. A colleague and I were vigorously debating some engineering issue in a little café on the sidewalk, and there was a commotion next to our table. He turned to refer to his laptop computer to and it was gone. Stolen and never to be retrieved. Actually, the computer itself was fairly worthless but the data on it – gathered laboriously over weeks on soil resistivity measurements - was very valuable and was gone forever. There was no one lurking behind us. No one scurrying away carrying a computer. Both thief and computer had disappeared. This reinforced an important point: Never lose actual contact with your belongings – esp. when their contents are worth more than the actual goods.

In public places (and not so public places); your phone, laptop, tablets and computing accessories are all fair call for the unscrupulous onlooker with devious intentions. Remember last year, how we all got a preview of the Apple iPhone4, when an Apple engineer had his prototype stolen in a bar (and more recently, an iPhone5 was stolen out of a bar also). As an aside, one can see a certain pattern here.

As engineering professionals, I believe we are very trusting and are often trekking in obscure strange places so are highly exposed.

A huge number are stolen
According to the FBI in the USA, a ferociously large number of over 600,000 laptops are stolen annually in the USA with only 3% ever recovered (and a further 26m pa – yes – mobile phones also ‘go missing’). Generally from airports, cars, and hotels; where you are operating in unfamiliar territory and are distracted. So the rule is to treat these assets like money and to hide them. Out of sight and out of the mind (of the would-be) thief.

Nothing is too small to steal. When working on a plant construction task with tight deadlines, I had an entire HV cable drum weighing tonnes stolen out of our yard late one night. So – also watch your large weighty suitcase containing your test gear.

Tracking software
With electronic gear (and phones and computers can be worth up to $800 or more); it is worthwhile considering use of some of the tracking software on the market (with varying degrees of usefulness and availability in different countries):

  • Prey (open source and free) on Macs, Windows and Linux machines
  • LoJack for Laptops ($25 pa) – installed on the computer and operates once a theft is reported – built into the BIOS – even operates when the hard disk is replaced
  • LapTop Cop
  • Hidden
  • Find My iPhone
  • Where’s my Droid

Fortunately, most thieves are opportunistic and are not tuned into doing detailed technical analysis of what is stored on your computer or phone; as these packages can presumably be disabled by a determined malicious IT-type.

Use the Cloud
Other suggestions are to try and use ‘the cloud’ rather than your PC to store valuable data. When I take a trip, I email scanned copies of my identifications to myself and this sits in ‘the cloud’ (that word again) in case the worse scenario comes to pass and these are stolen and I need to retrieve quick copies.

As thieves operate with incredible speed and dexterity; when travelling you have to demonstrate extreme vigilance and common sense.

Some amusing and not so amusing comments
An amusing suggestion, is that as most criminals are male; always carry a pinkish coloured laptop as this is unlikely to be attractive to a macho thief. And in a country like Israel or Afghanistan, you will find your unattended suitcase containing your computer won’t get stolen – but blown up by the police squad.

When protecting your assets, it is perhaps good to remember the old adage: ‘He that steals an egg, will steal an ox’.

Thanks to the Economist for some interesting reading.

Yours in engineering learning


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