Quebec school clamps down on laptop theft

Like too many organizations, the Selwyn House School learned its security lesson the hard way — when 18 laptops were stolen.

Since the theft, the private boys school has implemented Absolute

Software’s Computrace PC tracking and recovery software and has used the application to recover a laptop that was stolen after the implementation.

The school decided to implement a laptop program in 2000 and had laptop carts that can be wheeled to different locations. One of the carts was broken into and 18 of the 22 computers were stolen.

“At that point, we started looking for some sort of way of monitoring these things if they do get stolen,” said Scott Kilbride, the school’s network administrator in Westmount, Que. The school, which now has about 350 laptops, also ramped up security around the systems, such as placing anchor bolts on every desk and locking up laptops in secure areas when they aren’t in use.

To implement the software, Selwyn House put a login script on each laptop so that when it logged onto the network, the software was automatically pushed to it.

Absolute’s software either resides on a computer’s hard drive or in its bios, depending on the configuration. When connected to the Internet, it pings a central server on a daily basis and identifies itself. If it’s been stolen, the recovery process begins.

Absolute Software employs a number of law enforcement professionals that work with the police in whichever jurisdiction a stolen machine shows up, said John Livingston, the company’s CEO. The software will track either the IP address or the analogue phone number used to connect it to the Internet. From there, the company will track down the ISP and work in conjunction with the police to prove probable cause so that the ISP will hand over the user’s identity.

The company has helped recover over 1,000 PCs, Livingston said. Implementing the software also helps deter theft, he said. The theft rate on the 750,000 or so units the company monitors is at less than half a per cent, while the overall theft rate is closer to three to five per cent, he said.

About 70 per cent of thefts are internal thefts committed by employees, contractors or other people with access to an office building.

When a company implements Computrace, employees learn that the software has been implemented, or that some stolen computers have been recovered, and word of it spreads throughout the office building, discouraging other would-be thieves, Livingston said.

The other 30 per cent are smash and grab types of thefts.

Many thefts are impulse crimes and the stolen systems are sold for money. In such cases, the thieves generally don’t have the resources or knowledge to identify or remove the tracing software, Livingston said.

Sometimes systems are taken to assist with other crimes, such as credit card scams. Absolute Software has also recovered computers that were stolen by computer theft rings. Sometimes, the computers are taken to be used in industrial espionage so that they can be used to connect back to central databases, Livingston said.

“The software has been designed to be very stealthy, to be very tamper resistant and to be very clever in how it can silently calls out to a monitoring station. With the bios version, it’d be difficult to take the software out of the machine without the proper de-installation tools we provide.”

The bios version is currently available in IBM ThinkPad’s T43 series.

If the laptop is not recovered within 90 days, Absolute will pay its customer US$1,000. And if the laptop is within a jurisdiction where it cannot be recovered due to a lack of co-operation by authorities, Absolute has a service that will delete all the information residing on the machine.

Some 60,000 PCs are stolen each year in Canada and about 50,000 of them are laptops, Livingston said.

“It’s happening every day to companies and individuals across the country,” he said. Corporations can use the system to keep track of all their assets, so they can meet regulatory requirements such as Sarbanes-Oxley, he said. They can put a “digital cable” on their system.

The price of the software ranges, depending on volume. Selwyn House pays about $36 per laptop per year, and Kilbride said the investment is well worth it.

“It’s a peace of mind.”

So far, though, the school has only implemented the software on those laptops that are internal to the school. The school also has a laptop-leasing program for students in Grades 7 to 11. Selwyn House is considering providing the IBM ThinkPad T43 series laptops to students so the software is already included in the bios.

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