How to track a stolen phone, laptop or tablet
If you’re ready to give your device up for lost, the final resort is to remotely wipe all 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 used: you can even remove your personal data – either folder by folder or wholesale – through another machine’s web browser. LoJack’s deletion doesn’t merely move the contents of your My Documents to the Recycle Bin, but applies a seven-pass deletion algorithm designed to put data utterly beyond recovery.
On some laptops, LoJack support is built into the BIOS, making the software highly resistant to tampering. Participating manufacturers include Acer, Asus, Dell, HP, Lenovo, Samsung and Toshiba: you can see a list of precisely which models are supported on the Absolute Software website. On these systems, installing the software activates the BIOS module, which then continues to work even if the software is subsequently uninstalled. Even reformatting the hard disk won’t stop the BIOS from communicating with the monitoring centre.
It can take a while for commands issued through LoJack to take effect; we waited almost 12 hours for a lock command to take effect, and several hours passed between our issuing a remote wipe command and the documents actually being erased. Hopefully this won’t cause a problem, as long as the person with your laptop doesn’t immediately begin trawling your Documents folder for data. The company also claims that remote commands are acted on more quickly once the software has been running for a few days, whereas we treated our test machine as lost immediately.
Tracking your laptop for free
In October 2011, Kamil Konzinski from London pleaded guilty to receiving stolen goods, after being caught using a laptop that had been quietly phoning home every time it was connected to the internet. The laptop’s owner had installed an application called Prey (www.preyproject.com) – a free alternative to tools such as LoJack which, when activated, creates a detailed report about the state and location of your laptop, which you can access over the web.
By default, Prey provides a handy Google map showing your laptop’s location, 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 photo silently captured from your laptop’s webcam. This gives you a decent chance of getting a clear shot of the thief’s face, which you can supply to the police.
It’s all controlled by a web-based control panel, from which you can mark your device as missing, sound an alarm or lock it remotely. 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.