An open-source approach to tracking stolen laptops

A project being run out of the University of Washington is aimed at providing a method for locating stolen computers that offers privacy.

Daniel Terdiman Former Senior Writer / News
Daniel Terdiman is a senior writer at CNET News covering Twitter, Net culture, and everything in between.
Daniel Terdiman
4 min read

SEATTLE--Imagine your laptop is stolen.

Set aside for a second the likelihood that if it was you wouldn't be able to read this story and think instead about how you might go about tracking it down.

There are existing services, such as LoJack, that are designed to help find purloined laptops by identifying the IP addresses where they are subsequently used and through other assorted methods.

Adeona, a project being run out of the Computer Science department at the University of Washington, aims to give people a way to track stolen laptops while also providing the kind of privacy that commercial services may not offer.

But according to a team of computer scientists at the University of Washington, the price you pay for utilizing such services is a loss of privacy--as well as a reliance on a corporate third party to take care of you.

That's why the team has come up with its own alternative, which it is calling Adeona, the name for the Roman goddess of safe returns.

The idea behind Adeona, according to Tadayoshi Kohno and Gabriel Maganis, who gave a talk about the project at the Gnomedex conference here Saturday, is to give people a method for safeguarding their laptops that relies neither on proprietary commercial software nor the centralized servers of the companies that provide such software.

Adeona, they said, is the world's first free, open-source laptop-tracking system, and one that can be installed by users themselves, and which doesn't require a corporate intermediary.

The team is also developing a version of its software for iPhones, though it isn't ready for public use yet.

To Kohno, the danger associated with commercial laptop-tracking services is that it's never possible to know for sure that someone at a company that makes such software wouldn't exploit the company's possession of your personal information--and access to what's on your laptop--for personal gain. Or, he said, that information could be subpoenaed in court cases.

To be sure, it's a very unlikely scenario, but Kohno--the faculty leader of the Adeona project--pointed out several recent instances where companies in possession of people's personal information were either forced to give it up in court, or where it was stolen by employees.

With Adeona, however, a user needs only install a piece of free, downloadable, software on their computer, and then make sure to make a copy of a credential key that the software provides and that they must keep on, say, a thumb drive, and which is required to track the laptop if it's stolen.

In essence, Adeona works very much like services like LoJack. But because the tracking doesn't go through central servers, Kohno suggested that there is more privacy and less reliance on corporate middlemen.

To be sure, the information you can get from Adeona if your computer does end up stolen will not necessarily lead you directly to it. It would most likely still take a bit of sleuthing, Kohno suggested.

But the software does use several different methods for laptop tracking, some of which might offer quick recovery.

The simplest is that it can broadcast the IP address where the computer is used, and the owner can use that information to contact law enforcement to help find the specific location.

Additionally, if the laptop is a Mac--at least one with a built-in camera--the software directs the camera to take a picture every 30 seconds or so. This means that the owner--if he or she has the credential key required to communicate with the laptop--can get pictures of whoever is using it. In some cases, they might recognize the person if, say, it was stolen by a neighbor, a co-worker, or someone else they know.

It also can sniff the SSID of the wireless network the thief is on, something that could be useful in tracking down the location of the computer.

Of course, the utility of Adeona, and any other laptop tracking software, for that matter, relies on the thief not being sufficiently tech-savvy that they can discover it and uninstall it. Further, as a FAQ on the Adeona site points out, the software can be abused by the owner to track, say, what a girlfriend or boyfriend is doing with the computer.

But in most cases, users who are wary of trusting their privacy to corporations may find that software like Adeona gives them an alternative they like.

My sense is that this software isn't for everyone and that it would require more knowledge of technology than the average laptop owner. But for those who have the requisite understanding, it might provide some comfort to know that they can turn to open-source software that doesn't require going through anyone else's servers.

Plus, you get the benefit of being protected by a Roman goddess. And when is that not a good thing?