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Computrace tracks thief down to Devon

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Tracking information from security software has allowed Devon Police to recover a stolen Tablet PC and make an arrest today.

The Acer Tablet was stolen from Newbury, Berkshire-based IT reseller Eurotechnix last December. Fortunately the PC was loaded with security tracking software, called Computrace, which allowed its location to be determined once the PC was plugged onto the Net.

Norman Shaw, sales director of Eurotechnix is also managing director of Euro Tracking, the European licencee of Canadian firm Absolute Software's Computrace software. Euro Tracking runs the tracking servers which administers the Computrace tracking service in the UK.

Computrace is offered as an option on laptops Eurotechnix sells or those from other supplies. The technology involves a tamper resistant agent that resides on the hard disk of PCs. Even formatting a drive will not erase this agent.

In normal operation, a PC with Computrace installed will log onto Euro Tracking's servers to exchange at the start of any attempt to access the Net.

If a PC is reported stolen by a client, this information will be noted on Euro Tracking's servers and a tracking system is activated.

Next time the stolen PC connects to the net the IP address it is using will be passed on to Euro Tracking. This data will include the IP address of a machine even when it is behind a firewall.

A stolen PC will also silently dial up Euro Tracking's servers passing on the phone number of the line it is connected to. All this information is then turned over to the police.

In the case of the stolen Acer Tablet PC the phone number used wasn't recorded but the IP address was. After contacting AOL, police were able to obtain a phone number and address from where the stolen machine was recovered today and an arrest was made.

Computrace was recently used to recover a laptop that was allegedly taken during a mugging near a Birmingham School. The laptop then showed up in another school. It turned out that it was not a mugging at all. It was sold and the mugging was a cover story.

Striking back at thieves

Since the service went live in September 2001, Shaw estimates around 40 to 50 stolen PCs have been traced in Europe using Computrace.

The Acer Tablet PC theft was particularly annoying, since it was one of the first evaluation machines to enter the UK, but it's only among one of 20 or so PCs stolen from Eurotechnix directly that have been monitored through the service.

Not all these machines have been recovered.

Just over a year ago, Eurotechnix was a victim of a ram raid. PCs stolen during the raid made their way through Germany to Nigeria before the machines could be physically tracked down.

Although Eurotechnix quickly abandoned hope of recovering the machines, it was still able to make the machines unusable using a data deletion facility available through Computrace.

Shaw explains: "Our remote data deleting service is working well on some laptops that have turned up in Nigeria. We have contacted the users, as we can see their email address, and told them they are using a stolen laptop.

"Some respond and tell us where they bought them. Some do not so we delete the user area of their hard drive," he adds.

"It takes them about a week to recover from this and then we see their system on our screen again. As the Computrace tracking agent is still there we send the delete agent again.

"They soon get fed up."

Shaw recognises that the data deletion feature, and the idea of allowing a third party to have low-level control of corporate machine, might cause privacy sensitive organisations to be wary of Computrace.

In such cases, Computrace can be sold as a system where corporates themselves control the whole tracking and monitoring process. ®

Reg Factoid

In a previous incarnation, I wrote how TV star Robert Urich (best known as the detective hero in Spenser for Hire) launched a firm called Computer Sentry Software. CSS's CyberAngel software, like Computrace, was designed to help track down stolen PCs. The idea for CyberAngel was developed as a business idea by Urich after his son's laptop was nicked.

In 1998, Computer Sentry Software secured a license to export ultra high strength crypto but not much has been heard from the firm since (at least in the UK). CSS's Web site can still be found here.

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