Lojack recovers your laptop, without risking your neck

Is your laptop worth your life? Lojack for Laptops and its new Android counterpart make a compelling case that GPS tracking of your stolen gear is not enough.

Your security app gives you the longitude and latitude of your stolen tech, but is it wise to confront a tech thief on your own? And how do you get your neighborhood cops to care about your stolen $300 phone?

The publisher of Lojack for Laptops and its new Android counterpart, Theft Recovery, says that it provides more than device tracking. Canada-based Absolute Software claims that its 17 years of experience in the field and connections to local law enforcement agencies make it the best option for device recovery, too.

"Consumer vigilantism and tech are now enabling consumers to be crime-fighters," Mark Grace, Absolute's VP of consumer business, said in an interview last week at the 2012 Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. "But having access to a Google Maps location does not mean that you're prepared to go knocking on doors."

Take, for instance, the case of a California man who police testified was tortured and killed for confronting the suspected thieves of his laptop and Playstation 3. Or that of a Texas woman shot multiple times over a suspected laptop theft. Or a Missouri college student who was shot when he refused to hand over his laptop to a thief.

Absolute argues that its status as a licensed investigative agency makes it more qualified than your average citizen to hunt down missing devices.

"We can build a case to identify who's using the machine, we can subpoena ISPs, or go to court with the information," said Grace. The police, he said, are more willing to listen to his company and "go knock on doors" than others because Absolute builds the case for them.

Grace says that the 500 convictions from last year that his company has been involved in is an average figure. Absolute, he says, has recovered more than $12 million in stolen devices, including laptops, HD TV screens, and other gadgets, thanks in large part to the 50 to 60 former police officers around the world that are on its payroll to provide local law enforcement insight.

Lojack for Laptops can lock your laptop, as well as display a custom lock message. (Credit: Absolute Software)

Statistics according to a Ponemon survey indicate that there are benefits to using a recovery tool with long-standing connections to the police (PDF). Some of the more eye-popping figures:

  • More than 12,000 laptops are lost in U.S. airports every week;
  • 65 percent of business travelers who say that their laptops contain sensitive data have not taken data protection measures;
  • Only 33 percent of laptops in Lost and Found departments are reclaimed.

Of course, that final statistic might also simply reflect how difficult it is to communicate with airline representatives or navigate their notoriously labyrinthine protocols.

What is "Lojack for Laptops"?
Lojack for Laptops is a named licensed from Lojack, the U.S.-based stolen car recovery company. The two companies are otherwise unaffiliated. A one-year license retails for $29.99, with a premium year-long license that goes for $59.99. The premium version offers a $1000 laptop recovery guarantee.

The software is known to most businesses as Computrace, and actually comes pre-installed on many Windows and Mac computers as an "agent" which sits idle and unobtrusive, says Grace. A tiny 200 KB chunk of code, it remains idle until you install the software, which activates the agent. Once running, it uses a patented persistence technology to prevent itself from being uninstalled.

"The Computrace agent is built into the PC at the BIOS level. The agent is necessary because it provides the persistence that allows Computrace to survive a hard drive wipe, or even regeneration of the bios," explained Grace.

Grace wouldn't reveal the number of Lojack for Laptops subscribers, but he did note an interesting discrepancy. Although it has more active Windows subscriptions than Mac ones, he says that Apple users tend to go for the multi-year plan. "It's not a conversation that the Apple Store rep will encourage, but Apple subscribers will immediately buy the three year product. We've got more three-year subs for Macs than any other product," he said.

Oddly, though, the Mac version is actually less tamper-resistant than the Windows version. "Reformatting the OS will wipe it on Macs, unlike Windows. But not all of the thieves are clever enough to do that," Grace noted.

You can use Lojack to selectively wipe or encrypt your hard drive. (Credit: Absolute Software)
How it works
The Computrace agent contacts Absolute Software at regular intervals to let the company's servers know where your laptop is. This occurs once a day, and according to Absolute's FAQ (PDF), includes data such as amount of RAM, hard drive size, your type of processor, your operating system version, your user name, and your IP and MAC addresses. You can choose to activate the relatively new geo-location service, too. "There is no active monitoring of your computer until you report a theft," the FAQ says. The FAQ also notes that Computrace requires two-factor authentication to communicate with the server, and that all client-server communications are encrypted with RC4 128-bit encryption.

Once the computer has been reported stolen, the software will contact Absolute every 15 minutes as long as the computer has power. It uses the always-open port 80, says Grace, and it will report back to Absolute regardless of being in hibernate or sleep mode.

From the Computrace Web site, you can selectively wipe parts or the entirety of your hard drive, view a map showing the general location of your laptop, or file a police report with your local police department. Grace said that three out of four stolen laptops with Computrace activated are recovered after the user reports it as stolen through the software.

The Recover feature lets you file a police report. Lojack maker Absolute has nearly two decades experience with police departments around the world. (Credit: Absolute Software)

Grace said that Absolute is cautious about building out features that many of its competitors have long since added, citing the simple nature of the program as one of its key benefits. That's not something often heard these days, when there's a lot of keeping up with the digital Jones.

"We want to be careful to not confuse customers with too many features," Grace said. But he also acknowledged that new features are on the company's roadmap for Computrace. These will include data backup and encryption. Grace wouldn't confirm a timeline for them.

Computrace for Android
In part as a response to the corporate trend of requiring employees to provide their own smartphones for work, called "Bring Your Own Device" or BYOD, Absolute released last week a version optimized for Android tablets. Theft Recovery for Android uses similar persistance technology to its PC counterparts to prevent its removal, and includes management options such as geolocation, device freeze, end-user messaging, and data deletion.

Theft Recovery is currently only available for businesses, however.