Setting a trap for laptop thieves

A spate of publicity over misplaced government laptops has people hopping mad. A solution? PC makers are offering tracking software with new computers.

4 min read
Notebook computers are small, powerful, increasingly affordable--and easily stolen. Now, new services being offered by major PC makers could help track down pilfered systems.

A spate of publicity in recent months over misplaced laptops at government agencies, such as those missing from the FBI, the Internal Revenue Service and the Pentagon, has drawn attention to the problem of notebook computer theft.

"At one time, people stole televisions; then they stole VCRs. Now, laptops are the most stolen article of property in San Francisco," said Richard Leon, an inspector in the San Francisco Police Department burglary detail. "We get reports of hundreds of laptops stolen each month."

Looking to stem that problem--and to gain some badly needed revenue--leading notebook makers IBM, Hewlett-Packard and Dell Computer are offering software with their new notebooks that's the PC industry's equivalent of the LoJack stolen car tracking system.

But instead of using a hidden transmitter--as LoJack does--software from companies like Absolute Software and zTrace Technologies is embedded on notebook hard drives, allowing systems to be tracked as soon as they are connected to the Internet.

IBM, which offers Absolute's ComputracePlus, said it is seeing growing demand from laptop buyers in the education and enterprise markets. Vancouver, British Columbia-based Absolute said it saw a nine percent growth in sales in 2001 but expects growth of between 35 percent and 50 percent this year.

IBM has a variety of packages for the tracking service, ranging from a $49, 12-month agreement for one license, to site licenses that cover 20 notebook systems for $2,999 for 48 months.

zTrace, which is available on HP laptops, is priced similarly. A one-year contract for a single notebook costs $49.95. A 20-user license is $2,499 for 48 months. A call to action
When a laptop is loaded with Absolute's ComputracePlus application, tracking-agent software silently connects with the company's monitoring center whenever the device is connected to the Internet. If that notebook is reported stolen or lost, its location is tracked and local law enforcement is called in to recover the stolen property.

Leon said the software is very effective. "One time we were tracking a laptop broadcast as we approached an apartment to serve a warrant," he said. "When we knocked on the door, this guy answers and over his shoulder we could see the laptop all lit up and connected to the phone line."

The technology works over analog phone lines, as well as digital broadband connections. If the laptop is calling over a phone line, the software uses technology that allows Absolute to identify the phone number. If the device connects to the Internet over a T1 line, a cable modem or DSL, the location is traced using the IP (Internet protocol) address.

"We take the address to the ISP (Internet service provider)--AOL or whoever it happens to be--and get the account information associated with that IP address," said John Livingston, Absolute's chief executive.

But like most computer security products and services, analysts warn, these tracking systems have vulnerabilities.

"A lot of people steal laptops for commercial espionage--to get the data that resides on them," said Alan Promisel, a portable computer analyst at research firm IDC. "Those people will steal them without ever intending to go online."

SFPD's Leon agrees, noting that businesses users are often less interested in retrieving the laptop and more worried about the confidentiality of the data on their systems. A benefit to these tracking systems is that a customer can request a signal be sent to the notebook that would delete all the information on the hard drive.

Another weakness of the tracking systems is that in some cases a thief could reformat and configure the hard drive in a way that bypasses the tracking agent.

"We'll survive a reformat of the hard drive, but where it gets tricky is when people reinstall operating systems on top of each other. It also depends on what OS is being loaded," Absolute's Livingston said.

Specifically, the software will survive a reformat and reinstallation of any Windows 9X operating system. Installing Windows XP or 2000 can create problems, depending on how the system is configured.

"Someone can wipe the drive everywhere except where we are loaded, because we're working at such a low level in the system--that is, below the Windows operating system at the hardware level," Livingston said.

Experts say this type of tracking security would work best if it is part of a larger theft-prevention strategy. Other devices, such as cable locks, can prevent the theft from occurring in the first place, as can motion detectors that sound an alarm if the notebook is removed beyond a certain perimeter.

Some information technology managers said that in certain situations, such as in a business setting or on a college campus, warning notices posted in conspicuous places can also serve as a deterrent.

"Before we got the service, we had two or three laptops disappear from each campus," said Richard Scaletti, director of networks and telecommunications for North Shore Community College's three campuses in Massachusetts. "We installed the software and put up signs--not one has disappeared yet."