Sounds Spooky, but Just Might Save Your Data

DeadMan's Handle: failsafe program for stolen laptops

by / October 16, 2006
You sit down at your favorite coffee shop, take out the trusty laptop and start working. Your mocha is ready up front and you walk over to the counter to pick up your morning joe. When you turn around there is a big empty spot on the table where your laptop was.

Enter the DeadMan's Handle. Though this may sound like a spooky Halloween decoration made to frighten children, it just might save your identity from would-be thieves. A dead man's switch or handle is a failsafe designed for streetcars, trains and subways. In case the train operator becomes incapacitated the switch would cause the train to slow down or stop. Similar switches can be found on some lawnmowers, stopping the blade when let go by the operator. The British company DeadMan's Handle has designed such a failsafe for laptops.

According to John Brazier, director of DeadMan's Handle, more often the not, laptop thieves are after hardware and stumble upon information. DeadMan's Handle is designed to delete secure information in the event a laptop is stolen. If a stolen laptop has the failsafe program the thief will walk away with a working laptop but will have "no idea there was anything of value on it." DeadMan's Handle "not only deletes the data, but also stops the thief from looking for more information - the laptop looks boring, and gets sold," explains Brazier.

When the laptop is turned on a prompt designated by the user is presented. If the proper answer to the "innocuous-looking challenge" is not entered DeadMan's Handle "quietly deletes the confidential information ... on the machine" and deletes itself Brazier explains. Account numbers, personal files, or even remote network configuration files can all be deemed confidential. Harmless warnings about virus protection expirations or innocent looking update panels are among the 70 different challenges the program can be shipped with. Brazier explains that the user can set DeadMan's Handle to give more than one try before it deletes the information -- good for those of us who forget passwords -- and the user designates what information is to be deleted if the laptop is stolen. "The deletion is done covertly, overwriting the files with garbage so that they cannot be recovered" and is to a military standard.

In the cyber security field one must always be on one's toes. To deal with ever changing security threats, such as hackers being able to find/circumvent the program, Brazier says that they are developing DeadMan's Handle Version 2, which should have more flexible challenges and user options. "Our intent is to allow (in the long term) the user to specify almost any action on starting the machine as a pass or fail action -- so the attacker may not even know they were challenged at all."

Losing the information on a laptop can be more devastating than losing the hardware -- personal or company data lost, and sold to the highest bidder on the black market. DeadMan's Handle is reaching out to stop the stolen information train.

This project, titled "DeadMan's Handle" was an entry in the Public Administration category of the 2006 Stockholm Challenge.

Gina M. Scott Writer