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Oct 7, 2007

Password protected =/= Hacker proof?

Gosh: another stolen laptop contains personal data. But it's OK, we're told, because the laptop is "password protected".

"Password protected" could mean a BIOS boot password, a hard drive access password, a Windows/UNIX user login password, or a data encryption key. Using hacker or forensics techniques, all but the latter control can be broken, and even encryption can often be brute-forced given enough time and a weak pass phrase. If the laptop's data or entire hard drive had been strongly encrypted, we'd presumably have been told so and the people whose personal data are on the stolen laptop could sleep easier.

Call me paranoid but "password protected" sounds very much like "insecure" to me.

At least the Gap company 'fessed up that their stolen laptop was unencrypted.

UPDATE Dec 9th 2007: after a laptop was stolen from a Citizens' Advice Bureau employee's car, the CAB confirmed that it was protected with "a high level of encryption". Presumably 'high level' means strong encryption using a current encryption algorithm (such as AES) with a long key length (at least 128 bits, ideally 256 or more) and a strong password/passphrase policy, ruthlessly enforced (long non-dictionary phrases). Anyway, if it were my personal data on the laptop, the fact that the PR people specifically state that the laptop was encrypted would give me a lot more confidence than the usual mention of "password protection".

This is doubly important if you are, say, a government that regularly loses hundreds of laptops and desktops per year.