Intelligence: August 23, 2002


Reports that military and intelligence organizations had hundreds of laptop computers lost or (in nearly all cases) stolen last year is much less of a security disaster than it appears. About ten percent of all laptop computers are stolen each year, which means over a thousand computers a day. These machines are not taken for the information on them, but because there is a large market in second hand laptops. There have been no confirmed cases of foreign agents targeting laptops as a source of intelligence data. But the intelligence agencies don't like to take chances and try and get their staff to keep the laptops free of really critical material. Some intelligence laptops are equipped with powerful (but not unbreakable) encryption and password systems. Moreover, the thieves and fences that move all these stolen laptops don't want a lot of attention from the feds. Normally, stolen laptops are a local police matter. Local crooks know how to handle that, but the last thing they want is the FBI on their case. To that end, such stolen laptops may be hard to fence, as the buyer of stolen goods knows that trying to resell a stolen FBI or Department of Defense laptop could get him into a lot of trouble. To avoid this, the first thing a fence does with a stolen laptop is delete anything on the computer that might identify it as belonging to a government agency. Finally, the government agencies that lose laptops containing sensitive information do not want that information public, lest a representative of a hostile foreign power start shopping around for recently stolen laptops. 


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