Recover Your Laptop From Theft or Loss

Welcome to a new series of columns here at PC World. I wanted to take a moment and introduce myself to you and let you know what my focus here will be. I have a deep well of experience in using and writing about networking and communications products. I got my start in the early days of PCs supporting end-user computing for government and insurance companies. Back then, life was simpler: We had DOS for PCs and DOS for mainframes, and that was pretty much it. I went on to work in technology journalism, managing editors for PC Week (now eWeek), founding Network Computing magazine, and building Web sites for CMP Media, Tom's Hardware.com, and DigitalLanding.com. Along the way I have written two computer books and thousands of articles, testing too many products to count. While I now live in St. Louis, I have spent time in many different cities around the country and do a fair amount of overseas travel as well doing public speaking.

My assignment here is to examine the practical aspects of business technology that you can deploy and use to save money and time. Most of what I will write about here will have a networking or communications focus, but occasionally I will look at other technologies that I think are worthwhile. My goal is to recommend things that don't require a degree in computer science or engineering to deploy, and that work with a minimum of support resources too. Given the current state of our economy, I will also keep a keen eye on the costs too and will give you choices on free stuff or things that don't have huge price tags and can deliver quick returns on your investment.

My focus will be on small and medium business owners who don't have any or many official IT staff. So it helps that I have run my own small business for the past two decades and understand that environment all too well.

So enough about me. Let's get started and talk about how you can protect your laptop when you travel...

I have had my laptop stolen once, about four years ago, from the trunk of a locked car parked at a shopping mall. You never forget that experience of being violated, of being stupid.

So what can you do to be more proactive, given the number of laptops that go missing every month? Take a look at this story PC World did last year for some basic tips. One of the most effect protections mentioned in that story is the growing number of recovery software tools that automatically "phone home" (in the Internet sense of the word) and help you and the authorities, should they be interested, in trying to track it down. While it sounds like a great idea, there are several issues that you need to be aware of before relying on these services.

First, most of them are designed for individuals, not corporations. Absolute Software's ComputraceComplete is an enterprise version of the company's LoJack for Laptops line, and Inspice's Inspice Trace also offers an enterprise version. Both tools offer more advanced features such as asset tracking and remote hard disk destruction, which aren't found in an individual product. zTrace Technologies' zTrace Gold. MyLaptopGPS for Windows and Brigadoon's PC/Mac PhoneHome products all offer quantity pricing for business customers, but not much else in terms of added features over their individual versions.

Second, the versions that are offered differ as to features between Mac and Windows, with the Mac usually being a poor cousin. Taking Computrace as an example again, the Macs don't include the special embedded BIOS agent that comes with their Windows product on these laptops. (Phoenix Technologies offers something similar for its OEM BIOS customers called FailSafe.) And Gadgettrak.com has software for both Mac and Windows, but prices them differently.

If the software isn't part of the BIOS but just lives on your hard disk and if you haven't enabled a firmware or disk password, any intelligent thief can just reformat your hard drive and remove this protection. So it makes sense to take a look at putting these passwords on all of your machines as an added form of protection.

That leads me to my final point: Do you really need a vendor-operated central monitoring station, or can you set up your own central place where alerts can be sent? Oribicule Undercover for Macs has a form of central monitoring but Gadgettrak, PC/Mac PhoneHome and Adeona (a free, but problematic open-source tool for both Mac and Windows) don't make use of any central monitoring station. Instead, Adeona sends info to your e-mail (and for Gagettrack, Flickr) accounts directly. Of course, then you have to sort through all these messages when a laptop is reported stolen.

In my next post, we'll talk about using whole disk encryption products for additional protection.

David Strom is a former editor-in-chief of Network Computing, Tom's Hardware.com and DigitialLanding.com, and an independent network consultant, blogger, podcaster and professional speaker based in St. Louis. He can be reached at david@strom.com.

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