Tech Lockdown Part 2: Keeping your Mac, iPhone and Data Safe

Apple has done a pretty good job of making sure your Mac, iPhone, iPod touch and iPad are safe from remote hackers, and Mac OS X and iOS ships with built-in features to help keep prying eyes away from your personal files. Knowing how to use those tools, and what to do if your gear is lost or stolen, however, is up to you.

In part 1, we dove into physical security, passwords, disk encryption and data backups. In part 2, we’ll take a look at backing up your data, dealing with loss and theft, Find My iPhone, and other device tracking services.

Bad Times: Gear on the Run

Despite your best efforts, there’s always a chance that your Mac, iPhone, iPod touch or iPad could be lost or stolen. Assuming you back up your important files regularly, your data will be safe and ready to go once your gear has been replaced. Apple’s Time Machine is a good start for Mac users, but applications like Data Backup from Prosoft Engineering, SuperDuper! from Shirt Pocket, or Roxio’s Retrospect give you more control over what gets backed up and when.

Time Machine can be a great part of a backup strategy, but it shouldn’t be your only line of defense against data loss. Applications like Data Backup, SuperDuper!, and Retrospect all offer more control over backups and can perform their duties without any action on your part.

Apple’s Time Machine sports easy setup

Unlike Time Machine, these applications support user defined backup schedules, backing up data to multiple storage devices, and backups to local and Internet-based servers. Backing up data to offsite locations, or at least occasionally swapping out your back drives and storing them somewhere else is a good idea, too, because backups that are kept with your computer can be stolen or lost in a disaster along with your Mac.

Syncing your iOS devices with your computer backs up their contents. To back up your iPhone, iPod touch or iPad, just launch iTunes and connect the device to your computer with its USB Dock cable.

Keeping track of your product serial numbers is important, too, since the police and your insurance company will need them if you file a theft report. 1Password includes a software management feature that works great for keeping all of your application keys and serial numbers organized, and Bento fans can keep track of serial numbers along with property photos thanks to the database’s built-in inventory template.

Find My iPhone

MobileMe subscribers can track down where their lost or stolen iOS devices are thanks to the service’s Find My iPhone feature. Find My iPhone can also remotely lock your device, display a message on the device’s screen, sound audible alarm, and remotely delete your data.

Find My iPhone also supports the iPod touch and iPad

Users can access Find My iPhone by using a Web browser to log into their MobileMe account, and there’s a free Find My iPhone app available for the iPhone, iPod touch and iPad at Apple’s iTunes-based App Store. It’s a good idea to install the app on your iOS devices even if you don’t have a MobileMe subscription because you can still use it to help friends find their lost or stolen devices.

MobileMe costs US$99 a year, but it a quick Web search can usually turn up deals for substantially less. With the release of iOS 4.2, iPhone 4, iPad and fourth generation iPod touch owners can use Apple’s Find My iPhone service for free even if they don’t subscribe to MobileMe.

Device Tracking Services

Apple’s Find My iPhone is a great feature, but it can’t track your Mac. If you want to locate a lost or stolen computer, you’ll need to turn to services like GadgetTrak. This service, like other third-party tracking services, has the added benefit of being able to track your iOS devices as well as Macs, PCs, and BlackBerry and Android smartphones.

GadgetTrak for laptop and desktop computers runs in the background, so you have to install the company’s software before it keep tabs on your location. Once the software is up and running, you can track your computer’s location via a Web browser, receive email updates detailing where your computer is, and if your computer includes a built-in camera — like the MacBook, MacBook Pro, MacBook Air and iMac — you can snap photos and potentially catch a nice headshot showing who is using your computer.

Services like GadgetTrak can be especially handy in theft recovery, and the location data and photos they collect can be invaluable in criminal investigations.

“Laptop theft is rampant. In fact, one in ten laptops purchased today will be stolen within the next year,” GadgetTrak product manager Ian Shray told TMO. “Add in the fact that only three percent of unprotected laptops are recovered, and it’s clear that people need to protect themselves.”

GadgetTrak recently released an app for the iPhone, iPod touch and iPad that lets users track their tech gear on the go, and it’s especially handy if your laptop was lost or stolen since you’ll still have a way to track where your computer ended up. iHound, another company in the electronics tracking business, offers an iPhone app for its service, too.

GadgetTrak’s iPhone app

Device tracking services require annual subscriptions, but the cost is well below what you would spend to replace your gear, assuming it’s recovered. The downside to these services, as well as MobileMe, is that they work only when the device you want to track is turned on, and if you aren’t tracking an iPhone or iPad with 3G wireless data support, the devices need an available Wi-Fi network to do their magic.

Despite those limitations, gear tracking can be surprisingly effective for recovering lost or stolen equipment. Handing over the location of a stolen iPhone for example, can lead to a quick recovery by authorities. According to Mr. Shray, device tracking data has led to a 97 percent recovery rate for GadgetTrak subscribers.

Since it’s better to read the news instead of becoming part of it, always let local authorities recover your stolen equipment instead of trying to handle the job yourself. Police are trained to deal with criminals and potentially dangerous situations so you don’t have to.

Losing your computer, smartphone, or any piece of tech gear can be stressful, but with a little planning ahead, you can take away some of the sting that goes along with the situation. If all goes well, you’ll get your gear back, or even better, keep it from disappearing in the first place.