If you've ever lost a laptop or had one stolen, you know what an awful feeling it leaves behind. But a new breed of laptop security software is turning the tables on thieves, giving owners and police a fighting chance of recovering the missing property and sometimes even bringing thieves to justice.
Stories of laptop theft are all too common. A 2008 report from Dell Computer and the Ponemon Institute shows that up to 12,000 laptops are lost in U.S. airports every week. And a 2002 Gartner study says that the odds that a randomly selected laptop will be stolen are 1 in 10. The vast majority of these computers are never recovered.
Laptops are appealing to thieves hoping to make a quick buck. Many such criminals struggle with substance abuse. "They're people with drug problems, methamphetamine problems," says Marc Hinch, an agent with the San Mateo County [California] Vehicle Theft Task Force.
"Go to a crankster's house and you'll find a lot of stolen property—he's got six or seven laptops in there," says Hinch, who runs a Website called Stolen911 where people can list and search for stolen property.
How It Works
Laptop security software won't prevent thieves from jacking your hardware, but it can help police recover your computer after it's been pinched, and in some cases catch the thief, too.
Computer-tracking apps such as Flipcode Ltd.'s Hidden ($15/year basic coverage), ActiveTrak's GadgetTrak ($35/year), and Absolute Software's LoJack for Laptops ($40/year) use IP addresses to pinpoint the location of a stolen laptop. ActiveTrak's GadgetTrak uses Wi-Fi positioning to locate devices within 10 to 20 meters of accuracy. When (and if) the thief connects to the Internet, the software begins sending e-mail alerts back to the software maker and to the laptop owner's e-mail account. LoJack forwards this information to law enforcement, whereas GadgetTrak and Hidden require users to take that step themselves.
The software also reports the IP address that the laptop is connecting from. The software company and/or police can then subpoena the appropriate ISP to obtain the physical address associated with the IP address. This approach isn't perfect, however. A thief who logs on from Starbucks obviously isn't using his home address. Or he might steal his neighbor's Wi-Fi, in which case the police may knock at the door of a guy who's just too naive to secure his home router.
GadgetTrak and Hidden use a laptop's Webcam to take secret photos of whoever's using the computer. Absolute Software removed this feature from its security products, following a controversial 2010 incident in which parents accused a suburban Philadelphia school district of spying on students with school-issued laptops. The district was using Absolute's LANRev software, which included the picture-taking feature.
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