Computrace Locates Stolen Laptops

When properly installed, stealthy agent phones home to recovery service, which notifies authorities

Lojack for laptops? After testing a preview version of Absolute Software Corp.s Computrace 8.0 software/ monitoring service combo, eWeek Labs found it hard to avoid the analogy. In this case, police do not track a radio beacon but are ultimately provided a warrant and a street address, courtesy of a covert call (IP or phone) from the purloined device.

Computrace 8.0, which will be released next month, can be an effective, affordable recovery device when properly installed and tested. This version could also deter theft if an organization chooses to disclose the agents presence. Sensitive user data on the drive, however, still needs to be encrypted to be protected.

New options for next months release are lease management; software license management; "user drift" tracking, which logs who is using which computer; and a hardware profile that determines if the computer is a candidate for a system software upgrade. These features make use of data logged routinely by the new, more inquisitive agent.

Computrace 8.0 costs $49.95 per machine, including one year of monitoring. Volume discounts apply at the 100-, 500-, 1,000- and 2,500-user levels. Discounts are also available for two- and four-year monitoring contracts.

In tests, Computrace 8.0 worked as advertised, as long as it was installed strictly according to the instructions and tested rigorously. Absolute personnel expect to be involved in the setup process, and we found their telephone support to be essential.

A second caveat: Because BIOS may vary from brand to brand, secure installation procedures may also vary. For example, Hewlett-Packard Co.s Vectra XU and Compaq Computer Corp.s ProSignia 150 machines were fussy about installation, whereas the Dell Computer Corp. Inspiron 7000 was not.

Secret agent

Computrace software inserts a stealthy agent—an 8KB virtual device driver—on the hard drive that contacts Absolutes monitoring service at set intervals. If the owner files a theft report via phone, fax or Web, Absolutes server instructs the agent to call more frequently.

About half the computers reported stolen do call in—an annually rising figure corresponding to networked computers, according to Absolute Recovery Services, which logs phone numbers, IP addresses, time and date to generate a warrant request. Absolute claims that 95 percent of devices that call are recovered.

Once a judge grants the request, a warrant is served on the Internet service provider, which then must reveal the address of the unsavory user. This process, speedier than it sounds, enables police to make entry and recover the computer. The agent mutes the modem speaker when making a call and deflects commands to delete the hard drive, allowing erasure or reformatting only after protecting itself.

Naturally, we tried to kill the stealthy little agent. First we used the standard DOS "Format" utility to reformat the drive. Then we reinstalled the system software, and the agent immediately made its scheduled call. Next, using fdisk, we reformatted the drive and created a new partition before reinstalling the system software. The agent phoned home.

We were finally able to kill the agent—we wont say how. The important point is that most thieves will not know it is there, and those who do probably will not figure out how to eliminate it before the agent makes its call.

It is essential for IT departments to carefully test all installations and use a standard installation script across like units. Properly installed, the Computrace agent is probably as secure as it can be—for software. A savvy cutpurse might kill it if he or she knows it is there.

The next logical step is to put the agent into hardware, which would reduce the amount of time needed to deploy it across multiple computers. More importantly, such a move would significantly enhance the agents survivability. Three major OEMs are developing the agent in hardware, Absolute officials said.

There is no Mac OS version, which is odd, considering Powerbooks are highly prized and often stolen. Absolute officials have no current Mac OS plans, although they acknowledge the size of the Powerbook market.

The setup wizard was straightforward. We did run across inconsistencies in the call management software that Absolute officials said will be fixed for next months release.