Tracking software helps recover stolen laptops

Laptop computers are portable, compact and convenient but – for those very reasons – are more vulnerable to theft, as the Selwyn House School, a private all-boys school based in Westmount, Que. discovered to its chagrin.

In the year 2000, the school started using laptops as part of a computer-based teaching program – becoming one of the first educational institutes in Canada to do so.

Things were rolling along just fine until 18 of the school’s 22 laptops were stolen! It was a nasty jolt to everyone, and Scott Kilbride network administrator at Selwyn, resolved to find a better way of protecting school laptops.

An IBM contact referred Kilbride to Absolute Software, a Vancouver-based vendor that offers a Web-based tracking and recovery service.

Selwyn House opted for the service, and in retrospect is really glad it did so. The school reported another laptop theft recently, but this time – thanks to the tracking system – the machine was recovered by Absolute in a few weeks. “We reported the incident to the police and placed a claim with Absolute. Then we were out of the picture. It was a painless process,” Kilbride says.

So how does it all work?

Absolute’s Computrace system is based on a software agent that has a laptop’s serial number attached to it, explains John Livingston, CEO of Absolute Software. It is automatically downloaded and installed when a customer subscribes to the service. The agent is programmed to transmit a homing signal – the digital equivalent of calling home – anytime the laptop connects to the Web or the organization’s network.

The Computrace agent, says Livingston, is small and stealthy. “It survives reinstallation of the operating system, reformatting of the hard drive, and can even survive a hard drive swap in certain models like IBM.” Customers have the choice to either track their laptop inventories themselves via a Web-based interface, or to leave the monitoring to Absolute.

If a laptop is reported lost or stolen, Absolute’s recovery team is alerted the next time the serial number connects to the Web, he says. Although Computrace doesn’t track the laptop’s physical location, it can be deduced from the telephone number used to dial-in or obtained from the ISP provider.

Armed with information such as the IP address or the analog connection, the recovery team works with law enforcement to track the laptop. “We give that information to law enforcement, who can subpoena the ISP to give us the unauthorized user’s account information,” says Livingston.

Absolute’s recovery rate is almost 100 per cent, he says, and backs up this percentage with an economic incentive: if a laptop is not recovered within 60 days, customers may be eligible for a Recovery Guarantee payment of up to $1,000.

For many organizations, data stored on their laptops is of far greater consequence than the loss of hardware. For these customers, the Computrace system can remotely delete sensitive data from a stolen computer when data privacy is a concern. “The owner signs off documentation to allow us to trigger a data delete switch that’s on the computer from our monitoring server when we’re instructed to do so,” says Livingston.

“Just one laptop going missing can mean several thousand SINs being distributed on Web, so our system gives organizations a helpful security tool that may stop the problem.”

Many recent privacy breaches have resulted from laptop thefts. More than 600,000 laptops are stolen or lost every year, increasing the risk of loss of personal data and other confidential information, according to Safeware, The Insurance Agency, Inc., a Columbus, Oh.-based company that specializes in hardware insurance.

Educational institutions are particularly vulnerable. Universities account for 28 per cent of the 50 privacy breaches recorded by California since 2003, more than any other group including financial institutions, according to the state’s Office of Privacy Protection.

For schools like Selwyn House, other features like Absolute’s asset management and license tracking features also have strong appeal.

Students downloading pirated software or games on laptops can result in fines, a liability cash-strapped schools can ill afford. “We can track what students install on our laptops – see if they’ve changed hardware and can monitor where they are if they plug into the Internet or our network,” says Kilbride.

Livingston says at around $100 per seat for a three-year service contract, Computrace is a cost-effective tool for organizations that want to protect their hardware and data assets.

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