Prior to a planned international business trip, a customer asked “what do I do if my laptop breaks when I’m on this trip? How do people function without their computers?” Each of us relies on technology much more than before. From airline e-tickets to banking, shopping, even tele-health in a post-pandemic era, we’re utterly dependent on devices, forgoing items that we would previously have printed “just in case." Yet we’re still using devices with fundamentally the same small hard disks that could break at any moment (albeit fewer moving parts.)
What should a customer do if her hard drive dies or her laptop breaks, or even worse if it’s lost or stolen?
1) Plan for it. Expect it will happen rather than dreading it. Planning for your primary system breaking is anxiety-provoking but soon relaxing once you’re done with it. 2) Choose productivity tools that are completely location (and device) independent, accessible from the web or a smartphone. 3) Test your solutions. No, don't just nod at this in agreement: actually test it.
You don’t want to find out that smoke alarm batteries aren’t working during a fire.
Step 1: imagine your laptop is stolen. What’s the first thing you do? Is it encrypted? Can you remote wipe it? Now what? What is the immediate and longer-term impact? If there are files that are only on that one device, you’re vulnerable. If you can’t get your email any other way, you’ll need to fix that. Same thing goes for irreplaceable pictures, videos, music, and other documents.
Other things that can be affected: software licenses (how will you get your apps re-installed), stored passwords & security implications (if your systems are set to automatically log in to your services, a stolen laptop can dramatically ease a criminal in stealing your information), credit card information that is stored on your computer is possibly compromised, sensitive company information could be accessed relatively easily.
configure your computer to be secure in your daily use (strong passwords that aren’t shared across accounts)
secure your computer in case it is stolen or lost (in case it’s found by an untrusted party)
be able to work while in the process of looking for your computer or purchasing a new computer
replace what was lost using backup recovery tools
Configuring your computer to be secure involves requiring a login at each startup (more secure would be requiring a login every time you wake the computer from sleep, or from its screen saver). It also can involve installing remote software to let you wipe the system remotely if it is stolen (this assumes whoever steals it gets back on the internet without reformatting your computer) It’s very hard to secure your computer AFTER you’ve suffered a loss, unless you’ve already installed software specifically to address the threat. Step 2: choose the right tools. For web security, use different passwords for each site, and use a password manager like 1Password. For your mail and documents, choose solutions that give you web access, the ability to archive or find older items, and synchronized access from multiple locations (phone, web, laptop, etc.) – Microsoft offers Microsoft 365. Google provides the well-known Gmail and Google Apps solutions which are an excellent value for many people. Apple provides iCloud which gives you email, calendar and a cloud-based disk drive for your work (convenient if you have a laptop, phone and desktop and want them all to work smoothly together).
“I don’t always have time to copy my files somewhere else”
Your backup should be to the cloud continuously, without manual effort. This is critical: don’t rely on yourself to remember to back important things up. For complete system-level recovery, look at online tools. These work in the background, and you can use them whether you’re at your desk, in a coffee shop, or even on certain planes. The older you are, or the more tech experience you have, the harder this will be to remember. It used to be prohibitive because of price, vendor choice and network bandwidth to do these things, that’s why most older and more seasoned people are slow to change their routine.
Step 3: Test. Restore a message or a file from backup. Try to get to your documents from the web. Change your master password and have your password manager generate new passwords once a year to your most important web site accounts. If you can memorize your password to any web site, you’re doing it wrong.
If your laptop is gone, it should be an annoyance, nothing more. If the thought of it being stolen worries you, you have more work to do.