Protecting and tracking stolen hardware

Phones and laptops are easily lost or stolen, and I would urge you to use one or both of the following to protect yourself in the event that it happens to you:

  1. Encrypt your personal files. If you choose to do just one of the two things on this list, choose this one.TrueCrypt is a good, non-scary encryption utility.
  2. Install tracking software. LoJack and Prey were both mentioned in a recent Economist article, and they seem like reasonably good options.

The Economist article tells the story of a laptop getting stolen and then tracked down without police assistance:

Tales of stolen phones and laptops being successfully retrieved are the exception to the rule. One widely publicised case (perhaps because it was so rare) concerned a Canadian web consultant, who had a bag containing his laptop, mobile phone, health card and copies of his birth certificate lifted while on a business trip to New York. Fortunately, the owner had taken the precaution of installing an open-source tracking tool called Prey on his MacBook Pro beforehand.

Several days later, back in Ottawa, the owner got a message from his stolen laptop, saying it was being used in a restaurant in the Soho district of Manhattan. The tracking software not only sent the location details, but also transmitted screen-shots of what was running on the laptop at the time. It even turned on the user-facing camera and transmitted video of the user to the owner 500 miles away.

In this case, the owner was luckier than most. He had some 12,000 followers on Twitter to call upon for help. Meanwhile, the thief made the mistake of logging onto Skype with his real name. The laptop owner saw all this happening before his eyes and tweeted the details to his followers. He also called the New York police and asked, to no avail, for help. The missing laptop and other items were recovered only when a friend, aided by a Twitter follower in New York, rushed to the restaurant and confronted the staff with the evidence. The stolen laptop was handed over without a struggle.

Being able to track your laptop is a great idea in theory, but if the police aren’t willing to do the potentially dangerous work of confronting the criminal, I suspect the software will be useless to most people. That’s why encrypting your data is priority number one, and installing tracking software is nice to have but not something to rely on.

Read more about offline security

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