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Free tracking tool helps locate lost laptops

Fri., Sept. 26, 2008, 2:06 p.m.

The worst thing that could happen to that new laptop you just bought would be for someone to steal it.

The next worst thing? Failing to install simple and free software that can track the stolen laptop and tell you where it is.

Researchers from the University of Washington just debuted a free tracking tool called Adeona that not only helps identify where a lost laptop computer is. The theft protection tool can be found at

The software not only provides a virtual watchdog on your precious machine – reporting the laptop’s location when it connects to the Internet – but does so without letting anybody but you monitor its whereabouts.

That last feature is different than the existing commercial products on the market that try to do the same thing, said Tadayoshi Kohno, a UW assistant professor of computer science and engineering.

“All the other commercial products now send your location to a third-party that can establish where the computer is (before it’s stolen),” said Kohno. That has created problems, such as subpoenas in divorce battles where one side uses that information to develop a trail of “bread crumbs” to be used a against the other party in court, said Kohno.

Kohno worked on the new tool with Thomas Ristenpart, a summer student at the UW last year; Gabriel Maganis, a graduate of the UW computer engineering program; and Arvind Krishnamurthy, a researcher in computer science and engineering at the university.

It was important, said Kohno, to also develop a way to prevent others to locate the laptop before it was stolen, and to insure that only the owner could track down the location of it after it’s been stolen.

Adeona (the name comes from the Roman goddess of safe returns) uses an encrypted profile of the user’s name and the laptop’s current location. It periodically sends out the location — expressed in IP (Internet Protocol) address to an open storage network called OpenDHT. Kohno said OpenDHT is very much like the dispersed network system called Bit Torrent, used by many Web regulars to find and download music and movies.

If the laptop is stolen, only the owner can access the machine’s OpenDHT data and track down its last known location, said Kohno.

That data will identify the Internet Service Provider used by the person who is operating the stolen notebook. Kohn said the owner of the lost notebook should contact police with that information, who will then work with the ISP to track down the suspect.

The Apple notebook version of the Adeona service also can grab photos, using the laptop’s built-in camera, and ship those to the owner. That feature is not available on PC versions, at this point.

The group is currently developing a version of the tool for the iPhone, said Kohno.


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