Plugging the Dam: Laptop anti theft

The FBI Computer Crime Security Survey1 found that the average theft of a laptop from a business cost that business $31,975, outstripping the value of the IT asset itself by an order of magnitude.  Laptops and other mobile,  easily transported IT assets are particularly vulnerable to opportunists.  Due to the increasing ubiquity of these devices in our lives, demand, and thus incidences of theft, are only increasing.  More than 1 in 10 laptops are destined to be stolen within their lifetime.

This is a staggering amount of loss for an already taught IT budget to absorb, and no known measure can secure every mobile IT asset.   But smart measures can be taken to make it as hard as possible for thieves to walk off with your firm’s materials, and strategies can be implemented to maximize the probability of property recovery in the event that a theft does occur. Barcode computers and laptops to provide a basic anti theft measure, and save on inventory costs due to shrinkage.

Process Design

If you are serious about preventing systematic theft in your firm, process matters. Specifically, the business processes used to grant and remove ownership (or assignment) within the firm.  A chain-of-command style system is necessary to audit asset-assignment and ensure there are no opportunities for opportunists.  Its important to understand the causes of workplace-theft.  Opportunity is one of many causes, but it is unique in that it can be mitigated at a basic level, with basic tools. We barcode computers to protect them.

It bears repeating what was said earlier: 1 in 10 laptops is destined for theft. If you add excel-based serial tracking to the formulation of that statistic, the numbers will drop significantly. Knowing that a serial was collected and assigned to an employee is a significant deterrent for those thinking about theft. The threshold for opportunity is low, and the cost of these basic anti theft methods are small in comparison to aggregate inventory costs.

Excel-based Tracking

How much does it cost to maintain a single Excel spreadsheet for one year?  Less than 10 computers, surely.  As a corner case, let’s say less than 100 computers.  If you’re losing 10 computersto theft, you likely have a 100 or more.  Scale that up another factor of ten to a fleet of 1000 or 5000 computers, and suddenly it seems silly not to track these assets at as granular a level of detail as is possible.  That sort of accuracy and capacity to self-correct is the domain of business-processes, which means documentation of the execution of those processes.  In the simplest formulation, we can use Excel to help barcode computers to drive down inventory costs.

A simple excel-based approach to asset-tracking looks something like this:


This is still not necessarily costing you money if maintenance of the spreadsheet is rolled into existing functions of your business.  Shipping and Receiving, for example, will barcode computers as they arrive at the organization.  That barcode value goes into a database.  When IT items are deployed to various employees to feed productivity, the database updates the name of the employee the barcode value is assigned to.  Adding location information as in the example above increases your visibility of assets even further.

With that simple, 4-column database the opportunity for workplace theft of IT devices has been decimated.  But how best to capitalize on your new data

Annual Inventory

Once a simple asset repository (industry term for database of asset info) has been created and filled with data, you can easily reference a chain-of-ownership for a particular item. Who owns a particular laptop, desktop, or tablet? Easy to look up. Who’s responsible for a particular item that was left somewhere vulnerable or recovered after a theft? That information is now at your fingertips.

But it’s important to remember that not every asset is touched by business processes just because you have designed them and implemented data-collection points. Perhaps an asset was swapped between users without being correctly redeployed. Perhaps a new asset was drop-shipped directly to an end-user rather than being routed through Shipping and Receiving. An annual inventory eliminates the naturally occurring errors in every asset database.

A wall-to-wall inventory consists of a tour of your facilities in which you count, scan, or otherwise document every barcoded device in your possession.  Often, devices which belong to you will turn up during a wall-to-wall that never had barcodes applied to them, and they can be affixed and included in the asset repository at this time.  Its wise to practice caution when applying barcode labels to unlabeled assets during a wall-to-wall.  Sometimes, these assets are personal property of the users, brought in from home.  To help your inventory staff navigate these issues, it’s important to have a clear delineation of what is and is not “in scope” for your wall-to-wall.

Recovering Stolen Property

At the end of the day, employers want to arm their employees with IT equipment that will increase their productivity. This means mobile assets and laptops carrying valuable and private organizational data outside of the workplace.  This is the key to the valuation by the FBI of workplace laptops at $31,975.  It’s the data that’s valuable.  It’s the potential damage to a firm’s reputation if that data is released that is the true threat.

Computer barcode application and serial number recording is considered vital to anti theft for one simple reason: regardless of which precautions are taken, laptops and other mobile devices will go missing. Without the serial, there is next to no chance to recover your item. If you can furnish the police with a serial number, it increases the chance that activity by the authorities could return that item to you. Many modern police forces work with pawn shops and resellers by providing lists of known stolen devices, listed by serial. This is a major pathway to resolve the nightmare scenario of critical private data disappearing out of an open car-door window in a McDonalds parking lot.

Barcoding and serial number collection reduces employee-based theft, and gives you avenues for recovery in the case of random theft. The practice lowers inventory costs, and the benefits are myriad. The business community has spoken, from the Fortune 500 to the local small-business: it’s best practice.