Secure your Mac and backup your data in 10 minutes

Earlier in the week, you may have heard about Joshua Kaufman who had his MacBook Pro stolen from his flat. Using a service called Hidden, he tracked its location and even got photos of the alleged thief using it in his home (yep, that’s him below). The police eventually caught up with the thief thanks to the tracking software, and the laptop has been returned. I’d call that a happy ending.

In stark contrast, a friend called me a few of hours ago to ask if I could help recover her stolen Mac and secure her online data. She was still crying as she explained it didn’t have any tracking software installed on the Mac, making recovery almost impossible. The user account had a password set, but there wasn’t a firmware password so it won’t be long before the laptop is wiped and probably sold on eBay. To make matters worse, her Time Machine backup had recently been reformatted and didn’t contain a full backup. 

If you take 10 minutes (that’s all!), this article can give you a fighting chance should the worst happen to your Mac.

1. Install tracking software

There’s plenty of options, but my preference is Prey. Prey does all the usual stuff like reporting the location of your stolen device, screenshots of what’s going on, captures from the webcam so you can get a photo of the cretin, network and process info, etc. Plus, it’s free for up-to 3 computers and works on Mac, Windows and Linux. Hidden ($15/year) also has a good reputation, but it’s Mac only and not free.

2. Secure your user account

Open System Preferences, then Accounts, and make sure your account (and any Admin accounts) have good, strong passwords set on them. Need help choosing a password, see here.

Go back to System Preferences, and into Security. Your settings should look like this…

On the next tab, FileVault, turn FileVault on. This will prevent unauthorised users accessing the contents of your home folder.

3. Secure your Mac at boot time

The common criminal can easily boot your Mac using a removable drive, and can reset your administrator password – gaining access to all your precious files. Details of the actual hack are here.

You can foil this hack easily, by setting a firmware password to prevent anyone booting your Mac from an external device with your password, and it’s as simple as running the Firmware Password Protection utility and choosing a password.

You can find the Firmware Password Protection utility on your Mac OS X installation DVD, or if you don’t have it handy, you can download the version from my Snow Leopard DVD here. Full details of what this is and how it works can be found in this Apple Knowledge Base article here.

4. Backup your data to the cloud

Time Machine is great but what happens if the thief steals all your kit? Maybe you’re not even running Time Machine. CrashPlan is your solution – it’s a dead simple backup to the cloud, and it costs peanuts. Should anything happen to your Mac – theft, fire, hardware failure – you can download your entire backup set. Your data is encrypted before it gets to the cloud, so it’s stored securely. It even has options for version control and backing up files to friends computers. Yes it costs money; $1.50/mo for 10GB and $3/mo for unlimited storage – but how much are your documents, photos, source code, audio files worth? In my trials, BackBlaze came in 2nd place, so worth a look too.

Those in the know will be quick to point out Apple is about to announce the iCloud. Lets hope that allows Time Machine to backup into the cloud.

5. Pat yourself on the back

If you need any help with this stuff, drop me a message – I’m only too happy to help. Better to ask now, rather than after your laptop is stolen.