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How to Track a Stolen Laptop

written by: Lamar Stonecypher•edited by: Tricia Goss•updated: 6/12/2009

It's a jungle out there. According to a recent report, 672,000 notebooks are lost in airports every year in the US and more than half are never recovered. It makes sense to assume eventual loss and take precautions before the loss or theft happens. Free tracking application Adeona can help.

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    It's a Jungle Out There

    In June 2008 the Ponemon Institute released a report entitled “Airport Insecurity: The Case of Missing and Lost Laptops."

    Some of their findings were surprising.

    • 12,000 notebook computers are lost at US airports each week.
    • Between 65 and 70 percent are never recovered.
    • Most laptops are lost at security checkpoints.

    That’s almost 672,000 notebooks lost each year just in airports. That doesn’t include theft from businesses, thefts from parked cars, thefts from hotel rooms, and luggage theft.

    It’s a leafy jungle out there, at least when it comes to keeping up with a laptop.

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    Prepare for Eventual Loss

    The best prevention measure seems to be planning for eventual loss. That’s where Adeona comes in. They are an open-source, free notebook tracking service. Adeona’s focus is on letting the user take responsibility for his or her own privacy rather than depending on the tracking company’s privacy policy and potential loss of personal data. (This has been a banner year for data breaches.)

    The model used by some other well-known notebook tracker services is something like this

    • Software is installed on the notebook.
    • The software periodically communicates with a server to provide the user’s IP address and “local network topology."
    • The machine is stolen.
    • The owner notifies the tracking service.
    • The tracking service watches for the laptop to connect.
    • The tracking service contacts the owner with information he can take to the police to enable the laptop’s recovery.
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    Most Notebook Thiefs are not Professionals

    Most notebook thefts are done by amateurs. There’s no way to know if they’ll be technically proficient enough to wipe the hard drive, thus wiping out the tracking application, before going online. There’s a good chance that the thief won’t be proficient. The act is likely to be a grab and swipe. The thief may be thinking of selling the notebook on eBay or pawning it, or he may even want to give it to a family member or friend as a present.

    Even worse, from the thief’s perspective, he may not even be able to start the laptop. My ThinkPad has a TPM – Trusted Platform Module – on the motherboard. Other than knowing precisely what the configuration of my notebook is, it also contains the password for the device, and it’s not erasable. Unless the thief can guess my password, he’s not going to start the notebook without changing the system board.

    But what if you don’t have a power-on password set? What if the notebook is just sleeping or hibernating when it's stolen?

    Then the thief will be very happy. Maybe he’ll watch a few YouTube videos and play some online games before selling or giving away your notebook. There’s a very good chance that he will want to try out the notebook as soon as possible.

  • slide 4 of 10
    Discover Windows articles and technology reviews, such as this 2-page article entitled How to Track a Stolen Laptop at BrightHub.com, a writers community that provides information and insight into how science and technology interacts with and impacts our work, our play, our lives.How to Track a Stolen Laptop, Windows articles
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    Businessmen are not Strong on Laptop Securty

    That Ponemon Institute survey also found:

    • 53 percent of business travelers surveyed carry sensitive corporate information on their laptop.
    • 65 percent of those who carry confidential information have not taken steps to protect it while traveling.
    • 42 percent of respondents say they do not back up their data.

    Whew!

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    Open Server, Encrypted Message

    The model used by Adeona is similar to other notebook tracking services, but the details are different. In their model, a cryptographic key is generated and saved to external storage like a USB flash drive. This key is the “seed" and it is used to send a unique cipher each time the notebook updates. In other words, the server itself is open, but the message is encrypted.

    Because it is encrypted, the data is protected at the server end. A malicious employee or data thief could not obtain information about who you are and where you are. Even if they wanted to, the folks behind Adeano wouldn't be able to sell your location or your identity.

    Find an excellent, detailed Windows XP/Vista installation guide and the download links for Adeona here.

    Upon installation in Windows, it asks for a password. Make this a good password because it uses it as part of the generated cipher. The cipher then becomes a file named “adeona-retrievecredentials.ost" on the desktop. You’ll need this in order to retrieve your notebook’s location so they suggest saving it to an external USB flash drive and to another computer or mailing it to yourself. The installer finishes by asking you to wait for an hour before testing retrieval.

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    Flow Model in Adeona

    Here’s how the flow works with Adeona:

    • Software is installed on the notebook.
    • The software periodically communicates with a server to provide the user’s IP address and local network topology.
    • The machine is stolen.
    • The owner uses another computer, downloads the Adeona Windows, Linux, or OS-X executables if not previously installed, and runs the retrieval application, providing his notebook’s cipher file and the password he used during setup. (So don’t keep your flash drive in the same bag as the notebook. The .ost file is a text file – you can also back it up to a CD and store it separately from your laptop.)
    • The server then sends back location information. The default is for the last two days, but up to a week’s report may be requested.

    Note that the Adeona client program need not be installed for the retrieval program to work.

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    Retrieval

    Here’s what a report may include.

    • Internal IP address - the Internet location from the operating system.
    • External IP Address – the location from a location web server.
    • Nearby routers along the path – obtained by traceroute.
    • Access point – the name of the wireless hotspot.
    • Photos – lucky MacBook owners can get a picture of the thief from the built-in webcam.

    When making a retrieval, you can check as often as you like. More often than thirty minutes, however, might not yield better results. (Adeano can go up to 30 minutes between server contacts.)

    A smart thing to do would be to go ahead and pre-install Adeona on your desktop along with a copy of the .ost file.

    And that’s another point. Should you use Adeona on your desktop? Yes. If you’re worried about your desktop, office box, or server walking away, sure, why not use Adeona on them, too?

  • slide 9 of 10
    Discover Windows articles and technology reviews, such as this 3-page article. Here we discuss how to track a stolen computer, with links to other PC platform and hardware related issues.How to Track a Stolen Laptop, Windows articles
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    Conclusion

    I ran a retrieval on my laptop at 6:57 pm and got results for 6:56 pm. (I had no idea Adeona had just "talked" with the server.) The traceroute tracked my notebook to the Verizon Wireless tower about a half-mile away.

    I’m impressed with the thoughtful design, simplicity, and security of Adeona, and I will be using it on both of my notebooks. I like the fact that Adeona is open source. The methods they use are not secret – any knowledgeable person can examine the source code, compile it, criticize it, and improve it. I like their name, too. Adeona is named after the Roman goddess who guided children home after they left for the first time. She was the goddess of safe returns.

    Links

    Adeona Main Project Page

    Further Reading

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