A computer, smartphone or tablet is just about the worst thing to have stolen. You’re not just facing the cost of replacement; you’re also losing all of the data on the device. But perhaps most important of all, it probably contains sensitive information that may now be vulnerable to thieves: addresses, phone numbers, even credit card and banking information. A $1,000 computer can easily have $10,000 worth of data on it -- a nightmare scenario opening you up to empty bank accounts and identity theft.
Fortunately, you can protect yourself against computer thieves with device-location services. By simply installing an application on your computer, smartphone or laptop, an application can locate a lost or stolen device using IP addresses, GPS or accelerometer logs and then notify you via email or SMS.
Several very good device-tracking software options exist; indeed, this is an “it” industry at the moment. The main capabilities to consider when shopping for device-locating software are:
- Remote wipe capability: Allows you to wipe sensitive data remotely so thieves never get it in the first place. “You might not be able to recover the device, so you want to at least be able to wipe it,” says Joseph Steinberg of Green Armor Solutions, a cyber authentication software company.
- Antitheft persistence module: “Professional thieves know how to wipe a hard drive,” says Steinberg. But some software can make device tracking a part of your device’s firmware. In other words, even if thieves try to wipe your hard drive clean, they won't be able to wipe away the tracking software. Every time your device reboots, the tracking software will reinstall itself.
- Tracking bells and whistles: A number of device-recovery programs include automatic Wi-Fi connectivity, screen locking, screenshot grabbing, hardware scanning, webcam capturing, key-logging and other third-party software installations designed to record the thief’s actions and build a case against him or her should you track down your device.
- Location method: Many programs use IP tracking, which only tells you what city your device is in (not terribly helpful). A Wi-Fi/GPS-tracking program can narrow location down to within 50 meters.
- Messaging: The best programs offer messaging, even on locked devices. In the event that someone finds your device and genuinely wants to return it, messaging software allows for some back and forth with the person safeguarding your laptop, tablet or smartphone.
- Compatibility: The application you choose must, of course, be compatible with your hardware. Options for Windows users include Laptop Sentry, LoJack for Laptops (also OS X-compatible) and Prey (which also works with OS X, Linux, Android and iOS). Find My iPhone comes native with iOS but requires installation. And if you’re looking for BlackBerry protection, check out GadgetTrak.
While tracking software poses no inherent security risks, you do open yourself up to monitoring. “The weak link in the security is the person using the application, not the application itself,” says Steinberg. So if someone gains access to your device’s password, they can track you as easily as you’d track a thief. In a worst-case scenario, a hacker could activate your webcam and watch you. (A Pennsylvania school district remotely activated webcams on laptops it provided to students; an FBI investigation followed.) For this reason, pick a very strong password, and don’t share it with anyone except in an emergency. And if you plan to install this type of software on business computers, inform employees -- not doing so opens you up to legal action.
Getting Your Computer Back
To truly protect yourself, it’s essential to always encrypt sensitive data on your device before it’s stolen. That makes the moments you spend tracking your device with your new tracking software far less stressful.
Photo: Corbis Images
Nicholas Pell is a freelance writer based in Hollywood, CA. He writes about music, personal finance and technology for publications such as LA Weekly, Salon and Business Insider. He’s been online since the days of Usenet groups and bulletin board systems.