Help! I’m Your Laptop and I’ve Been Stolen

How to recover your stolen laptop, or at least destroy its secrets, using the latest crime-stopping gizmos.
John EdwardsJuly 31, 2006

Judy Rollins, career and technology education director for the Mesquite Independent School District in Mesquite, Texas, knows a thing or two about losing laptops. Last March, she lost eight of them in a single day. “Lost” may not be the right word. The machines, worth a combined $11,000, were stolen by two students who were nothing if not thorough: they also took the cart the laptops were stored on.

But Rollins didn’t panic. As she says, “We had a secret up our sleeve.” Or, to be more precise, on each hard drive.

As laptop thefts soar, vendors are stepping forward with improved ways of safeguarding mobile systems. “Given all the recent headlines about missing laptops and vulnerable data, businesses have a lot of interest in finding new approaches to protecting their machines,” says Richard Stiennon, chief analyst at IT-Harvest, a Birmingham, Michigan-based technology research company.

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Absolute Software helps reunite lost laptops and their owners by listening to the kidnapped machines’ cries for help. Its software, dubbed CompuTrace, sits undetectably and irremovably on a laptop’s hard drive and forces the laptop to automatically check in with a company server every time it connects to the Internet. When that connection is made by a notebook computer that’s been reported as stolen, Absolute checks IP addresses and other clues that allow the firm’s recovery team to identify the computer’s exact physical location. The company then coordinates with local law enforcement officials to find and retrieve the laptop. The company claims an 80 percent success rate.

Rollins’ stolen laptops were all loaded with CompuTrace’s technology. She wasn’t worried about the laptop’s data, since the machines carried no sensitive information, but she did want the expensive hardware back. And she didn’t have to wait long. As soon as the thieves used the machines to go online, they were spotted by Computrace. In less than a month, after subpoenaing the thieves’ Internet service provider, the Mesquite Police Department was able to charge two juveniles with the crime and recover all of the missing laptops.

Other software is less interested in search than in destroy. Beachhead Solutions offers “Lost Data Destruction” software that will automatically delete protected files as soon as a stolen machine accesses the Internet. And in cases where the laptop fails to communicate with the host server, the system will automatically take defensive action based on pre-set rules and conditions, such as the maximum elapsed time between communication attempts or number of unsuccessful login attempts.

For organizations primarily concerned with data security, encryption remains the best security safeguard. Although encryption software has been around for decades, many laptop owners have ignored the technology because it can be awkward to use and may degrade performance. But Peter Firstbrook, a security and privacy analyst at research firm Gartner, says encryption vendors have improved their products significantly over the past several years. “The newest tools really do provide a good level of security with minimal impact on user convenience and overall system operation,” he says.

Leading encryption products include PGP Whole Disk Encryption from Palo Alto, Calif.-based PGP, open-source favorite TrueCrypt, and, eventually, the BitLocker Drive Encryption system from Microsoft, which will be part of its next-generation operating system (code-named Vista and expected to ship early next year). The latter will feature powerful 1024-bit encryption and will place the software “key” on a special chip on a computer’s motherboard, versus storing it on the hard drive, for added security.

As for Rollins, she’s just glad to have her laptops back. “After all this, I wouldn’t buy a laptop that didn’t include some type of tracing software,” she says.