How to track stolen devices

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How to track stolen devices
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The more you use your laptop, smartphone or tablet, the more you have to lose.

The loss of a machine you rely on for work is taken care of by your insurance, but consider the fact that your email is now in the hands of a stranger – as is your internet history, which probably contains details of where you shop and bank.

The worst-case scenario is that your phone or computer will automatically log you in to sites such as Facebook, which is a treasure trove of valuable personal information.

You can protect yourself by adding a password, but this won’t necessarily protect documents stored locally, nor will it help recover your property any faster. Fortunately, the likelihood is that either your phone or computer will be connected to the internet again – either automatically, or as a careless thief logs on.

With the right software, your purloined hardware can seize the opportunity to phone home, delivering a wealth of information that could help you see it again. Alternatively, you can prime a service to destroy everything as soon as it checks into the internet.

Some devices, such as iOS hardware, come with tracking and remote wiping capabilities preinstalled; you only need to activate the service. Others, such as certain Dell Vostro laptops, come with software preinstalled with a year’s subscription to tracking and remote deletion services. If you’re using an Android device, or a laptop without preinstalled anti-theft software, you’ll need to install something yourself.

There are plenty of options out there, including very high-end, expensive options for IT managers with many devices to take care of. For consumers, there are a few high-quality packages that are easy to set up.

For those happy to spend cash, you can opt for a service such as Computrace’s LoJack for Laptops, which will set you back $US29 for a year of coverage. In return, you get the ability to lock your laptop remotely and display an unmovable message on the screen – perhaps your phone number or details of a reward for the safe return of your machine.

Computrace’s impressive LoJack software can remotely lock or wipe laptops, and sends location information, even from overseas

Alternatively, you can declare your laptop stolen, which provokes a more dramatic response. LoJack begins capturing screen grabs and logging keystrokes and sends them back to Computrace, where a member of the team begins collating them and sending them to the police.

Geolocation data is also gathered and reported. All this is hidden from the owner’s view in the name of giving the relevant police force a single point of contact, and preventing the kind of vigilante action that saw a New Jersey man arrested after assaulting someone he wrongly suspected of stealing his iPhone, after tracking it to the wrong location in May. The result isn’t only location data, but an exceptionally detailed dossier of evidence about the person in control of the laptop.

For those giving their devices up as lost, the final stroke is remotely destroying your data. This won’t put your laptop beyond use, but it will at least mean your documents and internet history are removed.

The days of remote data removal being the domain of high-end business-class devices are long gone – Apple’s mobile devices come with data removal built in, and it’s easily added to Android phones. On Windows laptops, LoJack can again be applied, and you can opt to remove your personal data – either folder by folder or wholesale – through another machine’s web browser.

LoJack’s deletion doesn’t only move the contents of your My Documents to the Recycle Bin, either: it performs a seven-pass deletion designed to render data utterly unsalvageable.

On some laptops, LoJack is resistant to tampering: lists a huge number of machines that have Computrace included in their BIOS. Downloading Computrace’s software, such as LoJack, activates the BIOS module, and if it detects that Computrace is missing or disabled, it reinstalls it.

On a machine set to be locked or wiped, for instance, even reformatting the hard disk won’t be enough to permanently restore it; the BIOS will perform a quiet reinstallation when the computer is reconnected to a network.

The drawback is that it takes a while for commands issued through LoJack to take effect; we waited almost 12 hours for a lock command to come good, and several hours passed between us issuing a remote wipe command and the erasure of documents beginning. It’s an acceptable delay as long as the person with your laptop doesn’t immediately begin trawling your Documents folder for data.

The company also claims that commands issued happen faster once the software has been running for a few days – we treated our test machine as lost immediately.

For those more keen on recovering their hardware than deleting the data on it and giving it up as lost, there are numerous ways to track and trace your kit. Again, iOS devices lead the way, with Find My iPhone (or iPad) included by default. Give the necessary command through, and your phone or iPad – assuming it has a connection to the net – shares its location with you. It’s fast, free and accurate. Android devices (covered next page) require a third-party app, but the effect is the same.

Where in the world?

Devices with GPS are arguably at an advantage when it comes to geolocation, but it’s possible to get an accurate location fix on any device with a wi-fi chip, thanks to Google’s location API, which means you can also locate laptops and non-GPS equipped devices, such as wi-fi-only iPads.

Google’s geolocation works by mining the data gathered by its Street View cars, which includes the geographical location of wireless basestations.

By comparing the base stations your device can see with Google’s data, you can arrive at a spookily accurate – to a few metres, in some cases – estimate of a location. When used somewhere with fewer wireless networks, reliability decreases somewhat. The other option is to use your device’s IP address.

This is the least accurate method: an IP address might be located anywhere in an area up to several miles across. It’s a starting point, but unlikely to help you to recover your kit.

Tracking your computer for free

LoJack isn’t the only option for tracking and recovering your kit. It’s possible to get useful tracking information for free, albeit without Computrace’s impressive team of investigators handling the resulting data and staying on top of the investigation.

In October 2011, Kamil Konzinski from the UK pleaded guilty to receiving stolen goods, after being caught using a laptop that was quietly phoning home every time it was connected to the internet. The laptop’s owner had installed a sliver of software called Prey (, which, when activated, creates a hugely detailed report about the state of your laptop.

By default, you get geolocation in longitude and latitude, which can pinpoint your laptop’s location to a few streets, as well as a pair of images.

The first is a screen capture of whatever is going on at the time; over time this gives you a decent chance of finding your laptop’s new owner logging into a social networking site, or giving away their email address.

The second is a shot quietly captured using your laptop’s webcam. Again, you stand a decent chance of getting a head-on shot of the thief, which you can supply to the police.

When activated, Prey creates a hugely detailed report about the state of your laptop

The most fully featured way to use Prey is via its control panel, which requires you to register. From the control panel you can mark your device as missing, sound an alarm or lock it remotely, the latter command requiring a password to clear.

Alternatively, you can display a customisable message, either warning whoever has your machine that it’s being tracked, or possibly – if you’re in a forgiving mood – offering a reward.

The only missing feature is the ability to remotely wipe your documents, although Prey offers the next best thing by supplying a secure mode, which disables access to your email and removes your machine’s saved passwords and browser cookies, preventing access to websites containing personal data.

Prey’s free account allows you to track three machines at once. Each machine will file ten reports containing a location and two images; once ten reports have been generated, the oldest report is deleted to make way for new entries. For those who want to cover more devices or save more reports, Pro accounts are available starting at $US5, covering ten devices.

For users who prefer not to have their laptop report its location to a third-party website, Prey can also be run in standalone mode. You lose features such as the ability to lock your computer or display a distress message, but you still get screen capture, webcam stills and geolocation data, all to your inbox.

NEXT PAGE: How to protect your Android and iOS devices

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