back to article GPS tracking slapped on laptop recovery service

Absolute Software has added GPS tracking to its laptop theft-recovery and asset-tracking service. This will allow asset managers to track laptops to within 10 metres. The technology will also speed recovery of missing or stolen computers, being easier to use than previous IP address-based tracking technology. The technology …


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  1. Will Shaw

    Minor flaw in GPS

    Surely the fact that the majority of these laptops are going to be indoors when connected to the internet will negate the usefulness of having a GPS tracker in them? Unless GPS technology has now advanced somewhat since I last checked and is now able to penetrate buildings?

  2. Sooty

    I seem to remember a tv show doing this a while ago.

    they put a gps receiver into a laptop and mobile and had them stolen to see where they went.

    They were out of the country within a day or two.

  3. David Barlow

    Police, Web-Camera, Action ?

    I look forward to the new series with revised voiceover ...

    "...we followed this stolen Lenovo as it careered down the outside lane surfing busty babes without indicating. When collared the 2 occupants were sentenced to 350 hours of communion service."

  4. Rob Haswell

    @Will Shaw

    My TomTom can determine its location from just over a metre away from my window.

  5. Anonymous Coward

    Computrace is great, shame about the UK Police

    I had my laptop stolen about 18 months ago. It had computrace on it so we enabled it. The hard disk was encrypted and locked so we were confident it would appear...

    About a couple of weeks later the tea leaves must have replaced the hard disk (as the one inside it would have been as useful as a chocolate fireguard) and it phoned home and Absolute reported it to the police. Who promptly sat on it for months. I talked them through how to get the Radius logs to ascertain where the device was but with the police not understanding how to get the information properly, and the ISP being particularly obtuse (there are simple forms you send to an ISP to elaborate RADIUS logs which enable Police and so-forth to know who had what IP address at what time) it just didn't work.

    So we knew where it was (I did a bit of snooping and found the exact location of the guy's IP address by a combination of tricks), what was on it, his email address and everything (the computrace software tracks *everything* that happens on the laptop) but the police did shag all for ages.

    We never got it back as by the time the cops had pulled their finger out of their arse to do anything about it, when they turned up (the laptop had called in that day) it magically disappeared and it has never shown up again.

    So it's great but the Police need to actually know what to do with it.

  6. Will Shaw


    But how many laptop thieves are going to connect to the internet on a feshly stolen laptop, while being sufficiently close to a window to allow a signal to penetrate?

  7. Rik Silver badge

    Second flaw

    GPS devices tend to use power.

    So the first thing you do after 'finding' a laptop is to take the battery out, after which you can leisurely figure out how to disconnect the GPS antenna before powering it back on. You can also keep the machine off and just move the harddisk to another system to copy those umpteen million personal records that's bound to be on it.

  8. Derek Bez

    Dencity {sic}

    So... if you nick a lappy you suspect is gps-tracked, you should take it to somewhere like Cannery Woof.

    Sure it'll get a signal, but the location won't be within 10m. Elevation isn't one of GPS's strong points either. Good luck to them working out which floor of which building.

  9. Anonymous Coward
    Thumb Up

    "GPS ... is now able to penetrate buildings?"

    Yes, it is. I was sitting in my house and got 5 satellites on my N95.

  10. Anonymous Coward

    Laptop Tracking

    Laptop Tracking has never been worth the cost. Encrypt the disk and have backups.

  11. Anonymous Coward
    Paris Hilton

    Why am I not surprised that nothing is done? (@ AC)

    This is a good example of why so much money is wasted, by both big business and government, on 'blue sky' IT/Comms projects.

    Yes, the technology exists

    Yes, it CAN do certain things

    However, confronted with human incompetence/greed/stupidity, it doesn't actually work very well (if at all) in the real world...

    In the case above it seems that sheer inertia/incompetence defeated the technology.

    In other cases it's down to some company, or consultant, selling the gullible on an 'absolutely secure, foolproof, state of the art, bleeding edge, yadda - yadda - yadda...' idea that will solve every imaginable problem. But it fails miserably. And predictably.

    Whatever, it's getting IT a very poor rep. Something which reflects poorly on all of us in the field, one way or another.

    Wouldn't it be nice if we could cut the sales and consultancy parasites out of the loop and the prospective users were able to talk directly to the engineers responsible for these schemes?

    "So, it'll find my stolen/lost laptop"?

    "Yes. However, you should be aware that recovering the item may well be far more difficult to ensure."

    "What do you mean?"

    "Well, what's your opinion of the competence of the Police's ability to do much besides fill in forms and issue fixed penalty tickets?"


    End of conversation...

    Paris - 'cos she knows a useless lying prick when she sees one... unlike most people who are responsible for buying stuff.

  12. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Depends on the "building"

    If you live in a house in the suburbs, yeah, you can get a signal through the roof.

    If you live in a major city with steel and concrete buildings all around, there's less chance of getting a signal. In NYC, I usually cannot lock onto satellites when inside my office or my house.

  13. Anonymous Coward
    Thumb Down

    Note to criminals:

    Put your stolen laptop in a bag to avoid being caught.

  14. S-J White

    RF is the way to go!

    Reading the above leads me to mention our own product suitable for asset retrieval (if that's allowed?) It has GPS, GSM AND RF so buildings are not a problem at all - we also retrieve the product if needed in conjunction with the police, so the technology is not an issue

  15. Steve Evans

    @Anonymous Coward

    "Yes, it is. I was sitting in my house and got 5 satellites on my N95."

    I can't get any sat lock inside my house on my N95...

    I all depends how solid your house is... and if it's got a shed load of metal techie things in the attic :-)

    As someone else mentioned, the techie savvy way of nicking a laptop will become...

    1) Grab laptop

    2) Jump on tube train (bye bye GPS)

    3) Remove battery

    4) Head towards nearest "safe house"

    5) Check laptop for GPS device

    6) List on ebay

    "Safe house" is defined as anywhere a GPS doesn't work, for example any tower block flat with a couple of floors above, or a nice old Victorian house with a basement. Just keep away from the windows - linux only then :o)

    I hope the tracking service returns the altitude from the GPS too, otherwise a raid on every floor of Nelson Mandela House, Peckham is going to take quite a while!

    Also given the cops track record for prosecuting anyone with a meaningful sentence that might actually deter them (aka not community service for a 27th offence), maybe a slight design fault in the laptop could accidentally release some kind of lethal gas... or maybe a thin film of explosive under the keyboard could actually remove the light fingers they are afflicted with!

  16. Flocke Kroes Silver badge

    Should have bought an XO

    Years ago the salesman from Qinetiq demonstrated GPS in a room: He used a huge (8cm) antenna, a thick pipe from the antenna to the GPS, the GPS was plugged into his computer and for all I know, the computer was reporting calculated satelite positions and ignoring the GPS completely. I never was able to demonstrate GPS in a room with a low power antenna and trusted software.

    Modern GPS can work in some buildings. If the GPS antenna is inside the laptop, the attenuated GPS signalwill be drowned out by RF interference from the CPU. A decent GPS has enough CPU power to turn on and get a fix when the main CPU is off, so the problem is solveable. GPS altitude is OK, and might even work inside a building. I have never had maps with useful altitude figures and even ten meter accuracy does not get you on the right floor. The GPS may be accurate to 10m but the GPS signal is only accurate to 30m. You need to know the error in the GPS signal to get 10m accuracy. It is not too hard if you can communicate with a GPS in a known position within a few hundred km.

    My current laptop has a BIOS controlled hard disk lock. I want this destroyed with extreme prejudice. When the laptop dies, I want to connect the harddisk to my desktop to retrieve the last day's data and use it as a back device for my next laptop. As it is, anyone could power cycle the machine, set the BIOS password to something random and ruin my day. Fortunately lack of portability is no loss to this laptop: it is completely useless outside. Without mains power the backlight is set so dim that I can barely read the LCD in the dark.

    My last laptop was stolen. The police recovered it promptly from a shop full of stolen laptops and left it in their evidence locker. By the time a policeman had time to spend a day returning laptops, the battery had died of self discharge, and the charger had got mixed up with other people's chargers.

    Looks like more effort was wasted on this GPS tracker than on fingerprint scanners. Image the hard disk and install openbios and you are away. One day fingerprint scanners will be sufficiently secure that they require a severed finger for authentication. I will not buy one then either.

    My next laptop will have a daylight readable screen, be too cheap to be worth stealing and have a "Vista incapable" sticker.

  17. Steve Evans

    @S-J White

    Thanks for the picture... Now they know what to look for and remove!

    I hope that's a double bluff and it looks nothing like it...

    How about this for an idea...

    Given that world + dog is going flash drive crazy, and you can now buy a flash drive that is the same size/fixing as a 2.5" sata drive (but no real need to use that amount of space), how about GPS embedded inside that housing... It will look just like a laptop hard drive... :-)

    Idea (c) me, 8th August 2008. :-p

  18. Scott

    GPS Accuracy

    There are networks of GPS receivers at fixed locations that are used specifically for calculating the error in the GPS signal. The surveyors where I work use cell phones to link their GPS equipped "Rovers" to this service. This allows them to determine position and elevation to within 0.01ft accuracy (or better). Of course, this is done using very powerful GPS equipment and antennas which no doubt do not exist in these laptops. However, I would be surprised if Computrace couldn't use this same GPS service to reduce the error in their GPS readout to less than 10m.

  19. Anonymous Coward
    Thumb Down

    Oh it talks to someone

    So an ordinary firewall will keep it "safe" then? Thought so... Sounds a bit like a waste of money.

  20. Stevie Silver badge

    Thick Polis Can't Find Laptop When Shown Where It is.

    I can beat that.

    I live on a T junction. One night, a car full of young drivers whose driving experience apparently ran to watching the "Dukes of Hazard" on TV crashed into my chain link fence so hard they left bits of suspension behind and tore out the poles (set in 15lb of concrete each) and threw them all over the road.

    Car leaves Scene of Accident (looking for somewhere to happen).

    Cops arrive, ask "How do you expect us to find a car you can't describe (it was one am and the car make and colour was in question)?"

    I walk 'em to the curb and begin the CSI exposition.

    "This notch in the curb is where the nearside front tyre blew out, you can see the little scrapes the wheel left all down the road afterwards. You might even be able to follow them to where the car gets dumped"


    "Ya. This undoubtedly knocked out the front nearside suspension (unlike wot happens on the TV) If that didn't do it, tearing out this concrete-embedded fencepost did. That one over there too.You can see the parts all over my garden. Which is how you'll get a colour match. Simply look for the car with no front suspension, a busted up wheel arch and front spoiler, hold *these* parts up to the car and you'll have your vehicle."

    Off they went. Next monday, I found the car in the station car park and called the cops. Who lost the trail.

    On wednesday I found the car again, in the same carpark in the same effing space. Called the cops. Who lost the trail.

    On the following Monday we did it all over again. Cops lost the trail again.

    I found the vehicle for them. All they had to do was nip into the West Indian Restaurant and the pizza place next door and say "Who owns the pimpmobile out back? You've left your lights on" and that would have been one in the commendation column. With the sort of accument that the New York criminals have come to rely on, the boys'n'girls in blue proved not up to a task a five year old could have done.

    I wouldn't bet two cents on getting a laptop back here if it had a barrage ballon tethered to it with a lit sign saying "stolen laptop at end of string".

  21. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    @ S-J White

    "...we can rapidly deploy the cmi retrieval team to locate and retrieve your item. "

    Maybe break the bastard's legs as well while you are at it?

  22. Dave Brooker

    This is nothing new

    Data deletion is what matters, not the retrieval of the hardware. Even if the police get it back the company that lost it won't be able to get their hands on it as it may be used as evidence. Mobile broadband through GSM/3G is a far quicker way to get to a device and as this is becoming increasingly popular tools such as Backstopp will get the job doen quicker.

  23. Anonymous Coward
    Dead Vulture

    Just kill the data

    As many have said on here, even if the laptop is located, the Police don't have the resource to go and get one laptop that has already been replaced through insurance. They are to busy with speed cameras to worry about laptops.

    We use BackStopp to simply delete the data, show its gone and provide a photo of the thieving toerag!.. So simple and gives you what you need. That added insurance giving you the peace of mind that the data hasn't been accessed.

  24. ExSophist

    Privacy Concern -- and Faraday Pouch/Cage

    So this firmware is embedded in EVERY one of certain model laptops?

    Is each computer clearly labeled so the customer can decide to NOT purchase one of these computers?

    Can the customer ask to have the firmware permanently disabled (e.g. a programmable fusible link) so that NO ONE can enable it from a remote location at some time in the future? What if the computer is sold to someone else...can that second purchaser have the embedded technology permanently disabled on demand?

    ONE scenario I can imagine is the Computrace technology being abused by hackers or terrorists that gain access to Computrace data (by whatever means**) and then maliciously remotely delete data from hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of users laptops.

    As far as I'm concerned, from a privacy standpoint this is also as bad as or possibly worse than having GPS tracking in your phone or RFID modules in your clothing, license plates, or other products. (search on "RFID" and "Katherine Albrecht" for related privacy info). The potential for corporate or governmental abuse is high.

    **Including a lost or stolen laptop with customer the recent "TheRegister" article on this re: TSA's "Clear" program laptop "disappearance", or how hackers recently infiltrated the TDameritrade client database.


    As for defeating the technology on a temporary basis, a simple Faraday construct (pouch, netting, cage, etc) is all that would be required to prevent GPS from working. Some buildings are also constructed to prevent RF from entering/exiting thru walls, ceilings, and even windows. It would be a trivial and cheap exercise for "thieves" to setup a secure room in which GPS would not work.

  25. ExSophist

    Computrace Firmware - Impact On or Problems with Installing A Preferred OS?

    A few more technical/sales questions.

    Does this embedded hardware technology also mean that a person can no longer install an Operating System (OS) of their choice? Will it in fact prevent a person later changing from the provided OS and loading any OS except a "special" (and hence expensive) OS?

    Is this one more method whereby Microsoft/Windows achieves what is called marketing "Lock-in"? Look this term up on Wikipedia if you don't know what it means. It's a powerful corporate tool to ensure revenues and remove customer choice.

    For example, what happens to the person who decides they want to install some specific free version of Linux on the Computrace embedded firmware computer? Would it even be possible.? <i>Assuming it's even available</i>, will they have to purchase some licensed bit of code and pay for some unwanted service to compile into their OS just to make the entire computer work?

    What additional CPU and memory resources does this extra hardware require? Will it degrade the stability of Windows? As functionality that is <b>not</b> required to use the computer, this hardware seems to present an additional and un-necessary risk.

    I think I'd prefer to rely on strong encryption and just either write-off the equipment loss or apply an insurance claim, and not even bother with recovery of the asset.

    It would likely cost a <b>LOT</b> more in my time and employee wages to pursue recovery of the computer (dealing with the retrieval company, the police, etc) than it would to just replace the asset and re-load the encrypted data from backup.

    But, if the computer manufacturers take these <b>choices</b> out of my hands, it's all moot anyway.

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