Software boosts laptop security

Although physically securing laptops has traditionally fallen into the realms of locks and cables, some vendors are now offering software solutions to help track the growing number of stolen mobile computers — and the data residing on them.

According to computer, electronics and high-tech equipment insurer Safeware Insurance Agency Inc. of Columbus, Ohio, 620,000 laptops were stolen in the U.S. in 2002 — up slightly from 606,000 in 2001.

“Three to five per cent of notebook PCs get stolen and it’s slowly edging upwards,” said John Livingston, CEO of Vancouver-based Absolute Software, a maker of laptop tracking software. “A few years ago it was 400,000 but it continues to grow every year and it’s a big problem.”

Sometimes the loss of the data residing on the laptop is more significant than the hardware itself, Livingston added. “The value of data that goes missing with the PC is important to people. They might have customer lists on it, proprietary designs or financial transactions. Of course, there is personal information they’re worried about getting out, and identity theft. All of that is unfortunately fueled by laptop loss.”

In the last five years the size of hard drives has also gone up from 40MB to 40GB, multiplying the damage done when a notebook goes missing, he said.

Livingston’s firm offers an enterprise PC tracking and loss control solution called Computrace Plus. He said it’s a “small software agent that hides on the hard drive.” The agent “wakes up on regular basis, calls a dedicated monitoring station and reports its location” when the laptop is connected to the Internet, either wirelessly, or through a phone line or cable modem. “If the PC goes missing, the customer can give us a call and let us know. Next time it calls in, it will give its location and we will work with law enforcement to get it back.”

Dave Jordan, chief information security officer for the Arlington, Va., county government, has made Computrace Plus a standard requirement for all county laptops. Jordan first saw the product at a security conference and was intrigued with its capabilities. “We looked at the architecture and it looked very viable so we decided to give it a try and placed it on just one person’s laptop initially to measure the complexity for installation, the time it would take to install it, whether there were any downsides, whether it would affect any operating systems — basically boil it and see if it was compatible with our standard image. It looked fine; it didn’t look like it was even there.”

It just so happened that soon afterward, that same laptop went missing. Jordan wouldn’t say whether it was an inside job or not, but he said it took under an hour to find it. “It took us less time to locate the laptop than to fill out the police report.”

In the real world it can take considerably longer. A police report has to be filled out and a search warrant obtained to pass on to the ISP. Without one, no ISP will divulge the physical location of an IP address, said Ren

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