Wednesday February 20 2008
They may look like an easy steal, but forgotten or carelessly-stored laptops could carry a nasty sting in future.
A British company has patented a hi-tech version of the cash boxes which squirt dye or shoot out telescopic poles - in the form of laptop software which photographs the thief, pinpoints his or her whereabouts and quietly destroys sensitive data.
The system has been tested in Yorkshire following the recent spate of high-profile cases involving government laptops taken home or left in staff members' cars against regulations.
A programme available on licence for £10 a month links to a control centre, which takes action if a laptop is used outside designated areas such as a government office or even a specific employee's desk.
Once connected to the internet, which with the latest generation laptops would happen automatically when switched on, the computer takes repeated pictures of its surroundings while sending out its location to the control centre.
"We guarantee to monitor the state and whereabouts of any laptop's electronic 'heartbeat', and to trigger the destruction of any files in the case of unauthorised, or apparently unauthorised, use," said Dean Bates of Virtuity, the Sheffield-based IT firm which has devised the scheme.
"There are millions of laptops out there containing valuable data. Most of them are not stolen because of that, but it's an obvious attraction if the thief wants to sell the computer on to more serious criminals."
The BackStopp programme is claimed to be undetectable to thieves, both when sending identification data and while wiping sensitive files. With the new generation of laptops, which use mobile phones' GSM (Global System for Mobile communications), the mechanisms would be in action as soon as a laptop left a room - even in the stairwell as a thief escaped from someone's home or office.
The government revealed in January that 69 staff laptops and seven desktop computers went missing from the Ministry of Defence during the previous 12 months.
Extremely sensitive data is usually stored online on virtual private networks (VPN). "We always advise clients to use VPN," said Bates, "but it is more or less inevitable that busy people will download something on to a computer temporarily, but then they forget about it and it stays there. BackStopp is an 'add-on' way of keeping secrets safe, working side-by-side with encryption, which is also vital."
The system has a domestic version which allows data recovery through a separate, password-protected server for absent-minded laptop owners who forget the restrictions and wander out of their own authorised zones.
Laptops now outsell desktop computers worldwide and their portability and small size makes them easy to forget. A six-month survey of property left in London taxis as long ago as 2005 found that 4,973 were left behind.
Copyright Guardian Newspapers Limited 2008
Thursday, 21 February 2008