As laptops have gotten smaller and people become more mobile, the odds of losing your notebook are greater. If you have one of these devices, you should seriously consider protecting it. There are multiple ways to protect your laptop with varying costs. Each has advantages and disadvantages. Even the US government has gotten into the act as both the FTC and OnGuardOnline.gov provide consumer information. Their motto is to treat your laptop like cash.
Asset Tracking Labels for Computers
These systems are perhaps the easiest and simplest to implement. A good example is the Stuffbak recovery service. You can buy their kits at many computer retailers or online. The idea is you stick a tracking label to your laptop with a unique serial number.
After affixing the label, you log into their website, describe the device and activate that label. In the event that someone found your laptop, they would have an easy means of reporting your item to StuffBak. They can call a toll free number or report an item found through the website. The company takes care of many of the logistical issues of getting the computer back to you.
I think this is a great service and can be used with items ranging from key rings to luggage. One of the byproducts of the process is you create an online inventory list with serial numbers, make and models.
The biggest drawback is the recovery service is dependent on the finder contacting StuffBak. While there will always be good samaritans, there are people who will sell or keep your items.
Cost: Varies based on number and label type
Availability: Most computer retailers, office supply stores
Device Tracking Software
As much as I like asset labels, you might supplement your protection by using a computer tracking service. There are a handful of these services for individual use, but two that I’ve tried. One is open-source and the other commercial.
Unlike StuffBak whose labels are usually visible on a notebook, computer tracking software tries to maintain a stealth mode so as not to give away its presence. The idea is to determine the laptop’s location by specific online activity. Basically, your laptop sends network location information to one or more monitoring servers.
CompuTrace’s LoJack® for Laptops
One of the better known names in this field is LoJack for Laptops by Absolute Software. The company has also partnered with various laptop manufacturers to embed their software in the BIOS. Even if your manufacturer didn’t install the software in the BIOS, you can buy the software from numerous retailers as well as online.
The product works with Windows Vista or XP (32-bit version). The software was easy to install on my Vista machine although it requires you use Internet Explorer to log into your account. I’m a little unclear about this requirement since Mac users can use Firefox.
After you register the software, it’s pretty much a “set and forget” product until you renew your license or you need to report a stolen laptop. The website does allow you to see your status and place a test call if needed. Once activated, the software will call into their Monitoring Center daily using an encrypted connection to see if it's been reported stolen. There is also a preference to have an email sent to you if the software hasn’t communicated with them in over 30 days.
In the event of a theft, you need to contact the local police department and Absolute. One benefit to the account setup process is your computer make, model and serial number are stored on your My Subscription page. This is info you’ll need for your police report. Contacting Absolute is easier as you can do this by phone or through the web.
Once you report the notebook theft to Absolute, their system will make certain monitoring adjustments. For example, it will instruct the software to call in more frequently when it detects the laptop is online. Realistically, the person using the notebook won’t detect this activity as it’s in the background. Their Theft Recovery Team uses this location information to help secure subpoenas or search warrants with the local authorities. According to the company’s website, they recover 3 out of 4 computers that call into the Monitoring Center. In some foreign countries, recovering may be difficult since they may not have contacts with local authorities. However, they will make best efforts to recover it.
I installed the standard version in early October and haven’t encountered any compatibility or performance issues. The product has worked with my firewall, anti-virus and anti-spyware programs. I did see in the FAQs that the software is generally not compatible with full disk encryption products, but I tend to encrypt select files and folders.
One feature the company recently added to the premium service is data delete. This allows you to remotely delete the contents of the hard drive. For people who have sensitive information, this feature is well worth the extra $20 annual fee.
Cost: $39.99 to $59.99
(Note: The Adeona website now indicates that it is not encouraging downloads at this time. It looks like the project is in limbo.)
Although Adeona shares some features of LoJack for Laptops, it is an open-source solution. The two features that appeal to most users are that it is free and “privacy preserving”. It handles this last feature by encrypting its transmissions and using multiple non-proprietary servers. Instead of connecting to monitoring servers that belong to one company, Adeona uses a distributed system called OpenDHT.
Another item that should be stressed is that Adeona is a research project and prototype by researchers from the University of Washington and University of California/San Diego. There is an academic paper that discusses their concerns with various device tracking software. The paper outlines various scenarios where location privacy can be a concern.
As this is a beta product, you’re not going to get some of the “bells and whistles” such as support. In other words, if your laptop is stolen, you’re going to need to download your log files and work with the authorities. For some users, this will be easy as they’re tech savvy and have a good relationship with their local authorities. Others may find the process difficult and time consuming.
The installation is easy, but does require a few extra steps. At some point, you need to install the Adeona Retrieval tool to another computer other than the laptop you’re protecting. This is the tool that queries the OpenDHT servers and grabs your location data. To get that information, you need to also have the adeona-retrievecredentials.ost and program password from your laptop. The credential file and password are most critical as you can always download the installer from their site. Without the credential file, you’re hosed.
This two part process may pose some logistical problems if you don’t have the credential file handy. You might think of putting a copy of the credential file on a thumb drive that is not in your computer bag. Alternatively, you could store a copy of that file on a secure online file system. In addition, you should document the details about your notebook make and model.
The software is not hidden as well as LoJack, but that’s partly because it’s in beta. I suspect we’ll see advancements in this area as the project progresses. The service will appeal to people that wish to maintain location privacy.
All these services will work to varying degrees and are better than wishing your laptop won’t get stolen. In case you’re wondering, I didn’t fully test these systems by leaving my laptop out in a local café so it would get stolen. I would never hear the end of that story and the city manager would probably send me a bill for improper use of police force resources. As a final reminder, no service can promise 100% laptop recovery which means you still need to backup and encrypt your critical files.
Last Updated (Thursday, 17 November 2011 15:51)