Perps beware: 'Jacking Macs' could prove hazardous

Software developer outfits MacBook Pros with car alarms to avert coffee shop thefts. Video: A solution for laptop theft?

At a time when laptop thefts are on the rise in high-tech corridors like San Francisco, an entrepreneur has rigged portable computers with a security measure that car owners have relied on--and sleepers have complained about--for decades.

"It's a car alarm for your notebook computer," said Randy Green, the Missouri-based creator of the iAlertU alarm system, which is expected to go on sale at Green's site, Slappingturtle.com, next month for $9.95.

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Video: A solution for laptop theft?
Watch a demonstration of iAlertU, software that sets off an alarm when an Apple MacBook Pro is jarred. It's activated by remote control.

Green has reconfigured Apple Computer's MacBook Pro so the computer's remote control can activate his security system. Thirsty coffee shop computer users who get up for another latte can hit a button on their remotes and they will hear the classic car-alarm chirp that tells them their systems are armed.

After that, any jostling of the computer will set a siren to wailing and the computer screen to flashing.

"Don't get your Mac jacked," is Green's slogan. Calls to Apple were not immediately returned.

Computer robberies in San Francisco jumped from 18 in 2004 to 48 last year, according to the San Francisco Chronicle. In the first three months of 2006, the city already saw 18 such crimes, putting it on pace to top 70 for the year.

Last month, a man suffered a partially collapsed lung after being stabbed by two thieves who were after his $2,500 Mac PowerBook.

Lt. John Loftus of the San Francisco Police Department's robbery detail says Green's software could be a deterrent but noted that it won't stop someone bent on stealing a computer.

"I don't know how effective it would be stopping someone who grabs the computer and runs," Loftus said. "If it went off, what they might do is throw it to the ground. In both cases you'd be out of a computer...But I'm sure it could be a deterrent."

A part-time software developer from Greenwood, Mo., Green wrote his program to override the MacBook Pro's remote control, which typically operates the Front Row software application for watching movies, viewing photos or playing music.

Green's software also uses the motion sensor in the MacBook Pro, which was designed by Apple to halt the computer's hard drive, thereby protecting it, if the laptop is dropped.

The alarm siren and the chirping sounds are downloaded with Green's program.

Green has rolled out a trial version but continues to experiment with the MacBook Pro's camera. He is trying to configure it so it will snap a photo of anybody who triggers the alarm. The system automatically e-mails the photo to a designated address.

Unfortunately, the system is rendered useless if the notebook isn't running. Also, a thief can disarm the system by removing the battery. Green notes, however, that the alarm would sound for at least the 10 seconds it would take the thief to unscrew the battery housing.

"It's kind of a novelty," acknowledges Green. "I really meant it to be a tamper-deterrent for college kids and the coffee shop crowd."

Another issue for Green to consider might be the plight of coffee shop owners who find patrons fleeing after an alarm is accidentally triggered while the laptop's owner is in the restroom. Fierce.

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