by Malia Zee
The physical security of notebooks is an increasing concern. High-profile stories about laptop burglaries from WiFi hotspots, some to the point of stabbing laptop owners, are appearing in the news. Security breaches at major organizations resulting from laptop thefts have become a regular occurrence. One recent example is the loss of personal information from the Department of Veterans Affairs, where a VA employee’s laptop was stolen from his house by an unsuspecting burglar. The stolen laptop has since been recovered thanks to a tipster looking for the offered $50,000 reward, with the sensitive information appearing untouched, which further indicates that the burglar was only interested in the hardware. Various software has appeared recently to help prevent or recover from laptop theft, but in many cases, it can be disabled simply by erasing or replacing the hard drive, so a hardware solution makes for a more sensible approach. The most popular hardware protection device is the notebook lock.
Security slot on Fujitsu N6210 laptop. This particular security slot has a Kensington logo imprinted next to it since these slots are often referred to as Kensington slots. Many such slots appear unidentified by other equipment manufacturers and look as small elongated holes with round ends. (view large image)
Notebook locks that we are familiar with today had been invented by the Kensington Technology Group years back and are now produced by various computer accessory manufacturers including Targus and Belkin. One end of such locks, often referred to simply as Kensington Locks, is secured using a durable cable to something stationary, such as a heavy desk, and the other end attaches to a security slot found on almost all notebooks sold today, as well as many other expensive and relatively light types of computer and electronics equipment. Notebook locks are not meant to be a foolproof theft protection measure, since laptops and other electronics usually have thin plastic or metal bodies that allow the lock to be torn out. However, since doing that severely damages the body, it greatly reduces the laptop’s resale value, making the theft less attractive. And, the mere existence of a laptop lock is a theft deterrent in itself.
A month ago, Kensington introduced 20 new notebook accessories, many of which are locks, and has generously provided to us one lock for review. The lock is MicroSaver DS, which is the most secure notebook lock in Kensington’s lineup.
Kensington locks come in thin paper boxes sealed using stickers on the two openable ends. The box is quite neat, but it had become inadvertently squished prior to picturetaking. It is somewhat wordy, but that is because both the box and the instructions are written in six languages — as far as I can tell, English, French, German, Dutch, Italian, and Spanish. I found it peculiar that Spanish is the last language listed.
The manual is an appropriately thin booklet that shows how to use the lock pictorally and provides general, registration, support, and warranty information verbally. Two items that it does not make clear are that one must turn the key inside the lock before attempting to attach the lock to a notebook (because the key is removable only in the locked position), and that while the key must be turned 90 degrees to engage the locking mechanism, it must be turned another 90 degrees (for a total of 180) before the key can be removed. However, the former can be inferred from the first picture, and the latter is noted in the FAQ on Kensington’s website, so confusion, if any, should be minor — and will be quickly forgotten.
Everything But The Lock
MicroSaver DS has a red theme that I like because it matches my laptop lid (picture below). The cable is 6 foot long and has a carbon tempered steel core with an external braided steel sheath covered by a rubbery translucent material. This external material makes it more pleasant to touch than metal. There is a red line going through the translucent material throughout the length of the cable. It is positioned evenly (i.e. not crooked) and I believe it appears for style reasons. The piece that secures the loop is made of metal covered by a layer of attractive black rubber with a neatly printed red Kensington logo.
The large red rectangle that appears in the picture is a cord organizer. It slides up and down the cable, and when the cable is rolled up for transport, it can be inserted into the rectangle to keep it neat. It cannot be taken off the cord except by cutting or breaking it off, which be difficult since it is made of thick plastic. I think it is good that it cannot be removed because that means that it cannot be misplaced or lost.
The lock comes with two keys with large red plastic caps. The caps could be smaller to save pocket space, but at the same time, the cap’s large size allows for better grip and easier key turning. Engraved on the plastic caps is a six-character code that is used to register the keys on Kensington’s website. In event of loss, Kensington provides one free replacement per key code, and registering the keys allows Kensington to look up your key code using the personal information that you provide. Registration is vital since the key code does not appear anywhere other than the keys themselves for security reasons — so once the key is gone, so is the code.
The Lock Itself
This and all other notebook locks of this type attach to the security slot on notebooks using a T-shaped piece of metal. Here, the lock is shown in locked position. When unlocked, the T-bar covers the two bumps that appear to its sides in this picture, so the lock can be inserted into and removed from the security slot. Once locked, the two dots keep the T-bar from wobbling and make it impossible to turn the T-bar by turning the lock on the outside.
In the above image you can see how MicroSaver DS looks from the top once attached to Fujitsu N6210 laptop. I have tested it on the following laptops: Fujitsu N6210 (2005), Dell B120 (2005-2006), Apple iBook G4 (2003-2006), IBM 770z (1998), and Toshiba Satellite with unknown model number (2002), as well as Nokia 447W CRT monitor. I found the lock easier to engage and disengage on some models than others, which is understandable due to variations between the equipment manufacturers, but in no event was it difficult to turn or required the use of force.
The Kensington logo and logotype that appear as red in the above picture are actually colorless, and are merely a relief in the metal. If a plainer, non-branded look is desired, both the part with the logo and the part with the logotype can be turned around away from the eyes. However, the cable is attached to the circle with the Kensington logotype, so turning it to hide the logotype would make the part to which the cable is attached visible. Aesthetically, it looks best with the Kensington logotype facing the viewer.
One item I particularly like about the MicroSaver locks is the black rubber ring that covers the metal near the locking mechanism to prevent the lock from scratching the laptop. In this case, it is surrounded by a red rubbery ring for style. It is attached to the lock and does not turn, which means that it will not be easy to lose.
All notebook locks have a bar that inserts into the laptop’s security slot and turns to lock. What is different in this case is the locking mechanism. To step back, there are two main varieties of notebook locks – keyed such as this one and combination. My personal preference is keyed because combination locks on the market include no more than four digits, meaning that they can be removed in under 3 hours — which is realistically possible in living situations with roommates. (10,000 combinations @ 1 combination per second / 60 seconds / 60 minutes = 2.8 hrs — which pass by quickly in front of the TV.) Of course, as mentioned earlier, the mere existence of a lock will deter many thieves, and if this is the approach one takes, then the cheapest lock on the market will do the job. However, considering that a lock will outlive many laptops and is possibly a lifelong investment, the higher cost of more secure locks pales in comparison to the cost of the laptops that it save.
So, for those that take security seriously, a disc lock such as MicroSaver DS is the solution. It is true that most thieves that are not experienced lockpickers would not expend much effort to pick a lock. However, picking some types of locks can be easily done in a matter of seconds with a piece of paper and a cheap plastic pen, as this videothat first surfaced in 2004 demonstrates. The lock shown is, incidentally, made by Kensington, but locks made by many other manufacturers can be unlocked using this technique.
The keys used to unlock MicroSaver DS are unlike most house keys that have notches on one side, and unlike most car keys that have notches on two sides. DS’s keys have notches on all four sides. The notches have line symmetry so one cannot attempt to insert the key into the lock upside-down. Without a long technical explanation, disc locks such as this one are the most secure analog locks available.
Further, I was able to test opening the lock with the wrong key. Kensington sent us two MicroSaver DSes for testing, so I had two sets of keys for two locks. I was able to insert the wrong key into the lock and to turn the key inside the lock 90 degrees. (As a reminder, the key must be turned 90 degrees to engage the locking mechanism, and another 90 degrees to be able to remove the key from the lock.) However, the locking mechanism did not engage or disengage (depending on whether I was trying to lock or unlock it). This and the fact that no master keys exist for non-custom locks makes me feel comfortable that the locking mechanism will not be defeated by a rectangular piece of thick paper, similarly to the lock in the 2004 video. And, I feel that with MicroSaver DS, my laptop is as theft-proof as it will ever be.
- Key registration and free key replacement in event of loss
- Rubbery cushion to prevent laptop from scratching
- Cord organizer
- Large key takes up more pocket space than necessary
- Key replacement takes 14-16 business days in after ownership verification
- Manual is slightly confusing
Overall, Kensington has done a good job on this lock. I recommend MicroSaver DS to anyone looking to protect his or her laptop from burglary.
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