Anti-theft chip turns laptop into 'brick'

System stops PC booting but keeps data safe.

Absolute Software has added a new feature to its Computrace Lojack anti-theft software that can remotely turn a stolen laptop into a useless, non-bootable 'brick'.

The point of the feature - the first implementation of Intel's latest Anti-Theft Technology (ATT) chipset - is to make it possible for the owner to leave data intact on the laptop in that the hope that the machine is recovered by the police at a later date. Up to now, the only options offered by LoJack have been to remotely monitor a machine in the hope of tracing the thief or executing a complete data wipe.

Absolute now reckons that for the technology to establish itself with consumers, the option of recovering data is probably essential.

"Many consumers don't back up data on a frequent basis so when we wipe data it is gone for good," said Absolute Software's Stephen Midgley. "Losing a laptop is like losing a wallet."

LoJack has been available on any laptop, including Apple Macs, for some time, though the company recommends users pair it with a more limited selection of machines supporting its own BIOS. This increases security by making it extremely difficult for the criminal to circumvent the LoJack software agent upon which the tracking depends.

Intel's new ATT chipset simply embeds the technology further, adding the consumer-friendly remote locking feature. If stolen, a user alerts Absolute which issues a remote command that puts the machine into a locked state which makes it impossible to boot or access the OS, or even get at encryption keys if these are being used.

At this point, the thinking goes, the laptop has become of no economic value and is more likely to be abandoned. Removing the hard disk makes no difference.

One short-term problem is that the chip has only made its way into a limited number of machines, including a small number of X-Series laptops from Lenovo and a couple of Fujitsu Lifebooks. The irony is that these are relatively expensive business machines unlikely to be bought by many consumers who might benefit most from the new technology.

"It's early days," admitted Midgley, who said he believed more affordable models supporting the system would be announced in 2010.

On the good news front, the company has temporarily cut $25 from the subscription price of LoJack, which can currently be purchased in two versions, a Standard Edition at US$24.99 per annum, and Premium version at $34.99 per annum.

The cheaper version offers only a basic theft-tracking feature, which allows a stolen laptop to be traced remotely should it connect to the Internet subsequently. For most users the extra $10 for the Premium version will be a better buy as it adds to this the ability to remotely delete data from the machine, a feature that will be foremost in the minds of most users.

The company also offers Premium users a degree of insurance up to $1,000 if a machine cannot be recovered, as long as certain conditions are met.

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John E. Dunn

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