Cracking Down on Laptop Hooligans

When someone steals your laptop, it's personal. You don't just want your data back. You want revenge. You want someone like movie tough-guy Vin Diesel to track them down and kick some butt. Could location-based services help you get your precious portable back? Maybe.

But first things first. As the reality that you've been robbed sets in, several thoughts may race through your mind. What's on the machine that's not backed up? How can I be sure the data won't be compromised? What can I do to find out who's responsible and get the machine back?

Absolute Software's Computrace service, now branded LoJack for Laptops, may help get your data back, protect the data -- and even recover your laptop. But there are some caveats.

The service includes agent software that will use any communication channel to connect over the Web and check in. Typically, machines are set to check in every 24 hours. So after a unit is reported missing, Computrace must wait for the device to try to connect before it can respond. If the device isn't connected to the Internet, it won't be able to check in until a connection becomes available. Once a machine calls in, however, Absolute

Software can instruct it to upload key data you need and erase the disk.

The agent software acts like spyware, quietly gathering and transmitting information that Absolute Software's technicians can use to try to track down the physical location of the system. This includes information on the IP address, e-mail address, the NetBIOS machine name and Windows log-in information. "We use it to try and figure out where this thing is," says Ben Haidri, vice president of marketing.

The Computrace agent works in stealth mode and can be difficult -- but not impossible -- for a thief to remove. In the case of Lenovo's ThinkPad X41 laptop, the agent software resides in the BIOS, so even a disk reformat won't make it go away.

Blowing away the hard disk remotely is one thing; finding the physical location of the stolen laptop is another. Once Computrace gains the IP address for the missing unit, Absolute Software needs to request physical address information from the appropriate Internet service provider. Inundated with such requests, many ISPs have begun charging $150 or more to fulfill them, according to Haidri. And then you'll need to get a warrant before you can ask the police to descend.

That's where location-based services might come in handy. Driven by the need to locate cell phone users for 911 services, next-generation services from carriers will include assisted GPS (AGPS) tracking.

A GPS receiver needs a line of sight to the GPS satellite to get a fix on the unit. That won't help in tracking down laptops, which usually will be indoors. AGPS uses the cellular network to assist the GPS receiver to overcome such obstacles. (If you want to know more about the technology, Rod Bryant's GPS World article, “Using Cellular Telephone Networks for GPS Anywhere,”  offers a good explanation of how AGPS works.)

3G wireless devices may eventually be integrated into laptops or installed into a PC card slot as well as embedded into smart phones. Absolute Software is in discussions with carriers to use those services to locate lost or stolen laptops.

But Haidri sees another, more immediate benefit. With AGPS, the laptop doesn't have to wait for an Internet connection to call home. The unit establishes a connection over the 3G network at any time and can provide the same information that would have come only after the user connected the unit to the Internet. So recovery could be faster.

Can you find the perpetrator without GPS coordinates? Maybe. Absolute Software's Chairman and CEO John Livingston claims a 90% success rate in either locating laptops or destroying the data but doesn't say how many his company actually tracks down physically.

The culprits tend to come in three varieties. The first is the traditional, run-of-the-mill thief who steals the unit and sells it on eBay. The new user soon receives a call after setting up the system. "It's fairly easy to get those back," Haidri says. Employee theft is a tougher problem and accounts for most business losses, he says. Typically, these thieves either sell the system or give it to a relative. They might reinstall the operating system but hardly ever reformat the hard drive, he says. The last category is students. They're the easiest to catch because they do nothing to cover their tracks, he says. "They don't erase it because they want access to everything."

But there is another category that IT needs to be concerned about: professional thieves involved in industrial espionage. Haidri has had personal experience with that. He says he used to work at a "top five" software company in California. Over one Memorial Day weekend, the offices of two product managers were forced open with crowbars and their computers were stolen. Those drives may have been removed from the systems and examined on a bench using forensic tools. Computrace can't help with that.

Then again, if you use a full-disk encryption tool such as Utimaco Software's SafeGuard on the Laptop's disk drive, you may not need Absolute Software's help at all. You won't get your laptop back, but your data will be safe. In the end, that's really all that matters.

Copyright © 2005 IDG Communications, Inc.

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