As i’ve promised myself, one of the first things i wanted to do on my new laptop was to install anti-theft software. However, as i went about it, i realized that the anti-theft software is only useful if your laptop ended up in the hands of the right people. By “right”, i mean those people with no more than a basic level of computer knowledge. You see, for the typical anti-theft software to work, the “thief” would have to launch and use the laptop in its original configuration, i.e. with the anti-theft software intact. This could be easily circumvented if the “thief” just wiped the laptop. By “virtue” of laptop manufacturers who want to make laptop recovery (i.e. resetting it to the factory default state) easy and cheap, they usually embed the recovery software right inside the laptop harddisk, and the recovery function can be invoked during boot-up, before the existing Operating System starts up. This virtually renders all software-based laptop anti-theft software useless.
The only way to get real Anti-Theft functionality is when it is implemented at the hardware/firmware level. Online statistics typically estimate that one in ten laptops end up being stolen. That means there is a huge market out there for anti-theft functionalities, and obviously Intel noticed this. In their current anti-theft technology offering (version 3.0), the one feature that i think is truly promising is the ability to make use of 3G networks without an internet connection, allowing you to disable the laptop through poison pill delivery over a 3G network and also to perform location beaconing, transmitting the GPS coordinates of the laptop at regular intervals over 3G. Check here if you’re interested to find out if your laptop is equipped with Intel’s anti-theft technology. Other vendors have also come up with anti-theft solutions that are embedded inside the BIOS, which should work very well. However, you’ll have to pay a subscription fee for the service.
Anyway, despite the apparent futility of anti-theft software, i proceeded to install one, just in case it does fall into the “right” hands. The one i used is simply the one that is free – Prey. Installation is easy, though by default it suggests installing itself into “C:\Prey”, which seems to give itself up too easily? duh. Anyway, i went on to test the report generated when my laptop is marked as missing on the Prey web control panel. The generated report contained a map showing a rather accurate whereabouts of the laptop, a screen capture and the IP address. Unfortunately, the snapshot from the webcam didn’t work for me. A snapshot of the “thief” would probably be most useful in recovering a stolen laptop. Given that most of us are living in high-rise buildings here in Singapore, having the location on the map is still not good enough. This is where collecting Wifi information helps (an option you can enable that is not turned on in the default setting), where you can get the SSID of the Wireless LAN the laptop is connected to. With this additional information, you can more or less hunt down the housing unit harbouring your laptop (provided it’s not in a private estate). Remember that you need to have at least one user account that is not password protected to let the “thief” to use, and he/she has to connect to the internet before any report can be collected.
As the saying goes, prevention is better than cure. Keep an eye on your laptop, and don’t assume you won’t lose it!