SMB - Technology for rescuing stolen laptops emerges

Perhaps you followed the dramatic headlines in May as the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs came to grips with the fact that it had lost a laptop (since recovered) with personal information on 26.5 million veterans, exposing them to identity theft.

Since then, you might have overlooked the missing New York state government laptop with 540,000 names. Or the Federal Trade Commission laptops with 110 names. Or the Ernst & Young Global unit with 243,000 names. Or the YMCA laptop with 68,000 names. Or the Equifax laptop with 2,900 names. Or the ING laptop with 13,000 names. Or the IRS laptop with 291 names. Or the Ahold USA laptop with an undisclosed number of names.

And those were just some cases that surfaced in June.

Yet technology is available that would allow "laptop" and "security" to be spoken in the same breath without triggering gales of cynical laughter. Such systems generally depend on either Internet tracking, "kill switches" or encryption -- or, more commonly, a combination of the three.

Laptop tracking

One of the vendors in the field of laptop tracking is Absolute Software. In Abosolute Software's Computrace service, subscribing laptops check with an Internet server once a day. If a machine is reported stolen, the next time it checks the server, it will be told to start checking in every 15 minutes, explained Les Jickling, marketing manager at Absolute Software. Using various databases, its IP address will be matched to a street address. The next knock on that door may be the police, who have come to recover the machine.

Thomas Schuetz, president of MDx Medical Management, a medical management consulting firm, said he signed up for the Computrace service in November 2005 to keep track of the 20 laptops his firm uses. Two months later, one of them, his own, went missing.

"I sent the Computrace people a copy of the police report, but the machine did not start polling the Internet until the end of March, from a location in Florida," Schuetz recalled.

"The recovery team contacted me in early April. They had tracked it on to Yonkers and then to downtown Manhattan, where it settled into one IP address, a person's home. They were able to watch what was being done with the laptop, and asked me if I knew that person. They offered to erase the hard disk remotely, but I would have had to reconstruct certain things, so I said no.

"After it was seized, I went to the precinct headquarters to pick it up, and everything was intact," he added. The person from whom the laptop was recovered now faces charges of possessing stolen property.

"The service would be worth twice what it costs us, and we recommend to our doctor clients that they get this service," he said.

By special arrangement, links to the service are contained in the BIOS chips of Hewlett-Packard, Gateway, Lenovo Group, Dell, and Fujitsu laptops, so that even reinstalling the operating system will not stop the machines from reporting in, Jickling said. Pricing for the full Computrace service starts at US$128.95 per unit for three years. The consumer version of the service is a boxed product called LoJack for Laptops, priced at US$49.99 for one year.

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