Securing your Mac, pt 1

Between September 2005 and July 2011 I was a regular contributor to MacFormat in the UK.

Whereas I’m posting the published articles for my MacWarehouse writing with the MacFormat ones I’ve decided to post the text as submitted, including any comments that I included for design. I am, however, allowing myself a few small edits for clarity.

The particular one is my fifth column, written in January 2006. This is presented purely as a historical record as much, if not all, of the information contained in it may well have changed in the meantime.

Securing your Mac, pt 1

As computers become an integral part of everyday life it becomes more important that you secure not only your Mac but, far more importantly, the data that it contains. From a business point of view the cost of the hardware itself should only be a minimal consideration, whilst you should take reasonable precautions to satisfy your insurance company replacing a Mac is a trivial expense compared to the cost of loosing business critical data, allowing someone unfettered access to your bank accounts or allowing commercially sensitive data out into the wild. For home users the cost of replacing a lost computer is a much bigger issue but it is still very important to consider what the thief will have access to if they manage to get their hands on an unsecured Mac.

In the first part of this article I am going to look at the security risks surrounding an isolated Mac, later I’ll look at issues affecting the network administrator and the steps that you can take to protect your data.

The important thing to ask is “what are you protecting and who are you protecting it against?”

The first part of this question seems easy to answer at first. You need to think about all the information that is stored on a computer; business or personal financial records are likely to be the biggest part but do you keep a file with the PIN numbers for all your bank or credit cards? What about the passwords you use for online banking, do you keep them on the computer, maybe with the account number so that you can remember which ones to use for each account? If you don’t do that maybe you save the password so that your web browser enters it automatically. A thief may not be able to read your password but they don’t need to is all they have to do is go to your bank’s website and Safari helpfully enters all the details automatically.

What other personal information do you have on your computer, information that could be used to impersonate you? Do you do Self-Assessment of Income Tax, if so you probably have your National Insurance number somewhere on the computer, as well as details of your employer. You may shred letters and bills that you receive through the post but what about those that you get via email or letters that you write on your Mac which include useful information such as details of loans or your mortgage?

When thinking about who you are protecting the data against here are a few things to consider:

Who has access to your computer? A thief can easily hide in plain sight, the office cleaner, the builder that you give a key to so that they can work on the house while you are out, you may trust a friend who comes in to water the plants when you are on holiday but who has access to the key that they have or what happens if they get broken into? The basic fact is that you may well not be aware that somebody has had access to your data until long after it has happened. Somebody does not have to actually steal your computer to be able to steal the data that is on it. You need to take precautions against the casual thief as well as the determined burglar.

If somebody does actually steal your Mac they can spend a lot more time trying to gain access to the data on it. The techniques that you use to deter the casual thief will generally only take a few minutes to overcome, enough to stop someone who wanders by your desk when it is unattended but not enough to be an inconvenience to you when you are using the computer. If someone can have access to your Mac for a long period of time much more serious measures need to be taken to stop them compromising your data. If you have a PowerBook or iBook you need to take strict security measures all of the time as it is just as easy to leave it in a taxi or have it taken from your table when you pop to the toilet as it is to have it stolen from your home or office.

In the next part of this article I’ll look at the techniques that you can use to protect your Mac from both the casual and more determined thief.

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