Stolen PCs that tell you where they are (and who has them)

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Imagine a personal computer that will let you know if its been stolen, and report back over the Internet where it is: secretly, without the thief even realising it has made contact.

Thats the promise behind a system called Stealth Signal, which is now available in Britain from Podsystem, a company that specialises in tracking vehicles, assets and people. It has already been recognised in the UK by Fujitsu-Siemens, which has adopted it as standard in its Connect2air mobility package for laptops. Other original equipment manufacturers of both laptop and desktop computers also showing keen interest.

The core Stealth Signal product, XTool Computer Tracker, is designed to address the fact that computers are highly vulnerable to theft especially laptops and often contain not just sensitive corporate information, but also indispensable data that may not have been backed up. The full package from Podsystem allows users not only to find stolen computers, but also to delete sensitive information from them remotely to ensure it does not fall into the wrong hands: and all this for an annually monitored cost starting at just 49 for one computer.

Stealth Signal is both a software product and a service. The software is available as a modest Internet download, or can be installed by computer suppliers as part of the "disk image" containing the operating system and basic software. It supports all major Windows versions since 98 including XP, and all Macintosh OS versions including OSX.

Once installed, the system reports regularly to a remote server over the Internet, passing back information about the machines whereabouts, its configuration and other details.

Users can access this information routinely to monitor the computers system setup and perform other management tasks, and can get further use out of the system with two optional software tools: Xtool Data Protector, which allows users to encrypt files and conceal them on hidden "virtual drives"; and XTool Asset Manager, which allows them to keep track of their computers and the software on them remotely.

If the computer should be stolen, the theft recovery system swings into action. The owner alerts the Podsystem control centre, which then detects the location of the computer, alerts the local police, and can if necessary help with recovery.

Stealth Signal works by automatically contacting the control centre over the Internet every time the computer is booted up and plugged into a phone line or broadband Internet connection, or linked to the Internet by GPRS-based mobile connection (ideal for field workers). If the computer is left on constantly, the software reports to the control centre automatically every 24 hours.

When it makes contact, the system reports the IP (Internet Protocol) address of the connection, and with this information the Podsystem control centre can find out the physical address of the user from the ISP (Internet service provider). Free dial-up lines have been established in the UK and various other countries. On dial-up Internet connections Stealth Signal can also detect the users telephone number where caller ID technology is available, helping to track down the location and the identity of the thief.

Stealth Signals great strength is that it works transparently, and is undetectable even to thieves who are familiar with computers. Its program files are disguised as innocuous system files, and there is no evidence of its activity in use, even in standard system tools such as Windows Task Manager. It dials the Internet silently, using its own dial-up program, so it is not affected by any new configurations set up by an illicit user, and it gives the user no indication that a connection has been made.

Equally impressive is the fact that Stealth Signal can auto-detect many of the most common proxy or firewall settings, so a stolen computer can even report its location if it has already been set up unsuspectingly by a legitimate new corporate user. It can also bypass personal software firewalls such as those of Zone Alarm, Norton and McAfee.

Whilst Stealth Signal cannot prevent a hard disk being removed from a stolen computer, it will continue to work when the original disk is installed in a new computer, so it can still report on the location of the thieves. Even if a new version of the operating system is installed, the system can detect its configuration automatically and keep on working.

The only unauthorised way to remove Stealth Signal is by formatting the hard disk, so the system includes advice on inhibiting formatting through the computers BIOS (basic input-output settings). If the original owner wants to delete the system, this can be done over the web with the right password.

The optional services have been added in order to give Stealth Signal value as a management tool that is useful all the time, rather than just when a computer is stolen.

Xtool Data Protector allows users to create hidden "virtual" hard disks and encrypt the data stored on them to 3DES (192-bit key) and Blowfish (32-448-bit key) standard. Data Protector also allows users to back up valuable data over the Internet from anywhere in the world to a secure FTP (File Transport Protocol) web site of their choice.

XTool Asset Manager allows users to record, track and maintain the configuration of their corporate computers remotely. Hardware items tracked include, amongst other details, processor, hard disk space, available memory, serial numbers and operating system. On the software side, Asset Manager tracks version numbers, modifications, path statements and similar information. It can also provide up-to-the-minute web-based inventory reporting and licence compliance tracking for local, mobile and remote computers connecting across any network.

Asset Manager can also monitor who in an organisation has which computer, where it is located and when it is moved.

Stealth Signal was developed in the United States by a Texas-based company of the same name, and has already notched up a track record of successful computer recoveries in the US and overseas. On its US launch it received highly favourable reviews, which found that its performance far exceeded that of previous covert computer tracking systems, and that it genuinely lived up to its claim of being virtually impossible to detect. One described it as "the first signal and recovery service I've seen that I would strongly recommend."

Podsystem, which is the exclusive UK distributor and also handles the tracking, is offering the system on an annual subscription basis which works out at about 4 per unit per month. According to managing director Charles Towers-Clark: "Its a tiny price to pay for the peace of mind of knowing your computers dont have to disappear forever if theyre stolen."

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