06/08/2007 01:56 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Your Notebook is 'Going Commando'

2007 might well be the year your mobile computer gets stolen. Strangely, your chances of recovering it just got much better.

A college friend who runs an ad agency in London mailed me to say that all his company's notebooks had been stolen during a break-in over the April Fool's weekend. As Scotland Yard dusted for prints, Roy tapped away on a 10 lb. Toshiba that an assistant found in a storage closet. It ran an ancient version of Windows, but booted up and connected quite nicely. Kudos to Toshiba!

Since the stolen hardware was not very new he wondered, "What...was the object [of the theft]...and how can I prevent [similar] problems in the future?"

Since machines without much intrinsic value were taken, the object was probably information. Any hacker can bust open a non-secure wifi system, but for secure networks or for thieves with poor technical knowledge, stealing your computers is an easy instant solution to someone's pressing need-to-know. With this in mind, the list of probable thieves at Roy's agency shrank to other competing agencies or to the competitors of a current client.

Here in North America, the FBI says most corporate notebook thieves are familiar faces at a victimized company. (About 70 percent are actual employees). For this reason, a cool new software tool from a Houston based company is making ordinary mobile PC theft much more difficult.

Last month, one of the smaller American players in the wifi-based stolen notebook location business debuted a program that not only locates a stolen device by triangulating its position using current wifi positioning technology, it also uses the fact that most mobile corporate machines now possess webcams.

When the thief first opens a stolen notebook or MacBook, his or her picture is broadcast to security personnel along with the device's current position. Of course, the thief's picture is an immense help in retrieving the missing cyberswag.

If the device is offline, the program, called XTool, simply stores the image sending it whenever the machine comes into contact with a wifi network.

Like some other mobile location programs, XTool also allows the owner of the stolen device to remotely delete the most sensitive information from devices after they have been stolen. Not all notebook recovery programs have this, and it is a good feature to look for since there is always sensitive material on a stolen notebook.

Vancouver's Absolute Software, manufacturers of the Computrace and LoJack systems, does have a remote delete function both for Macs and PCs. Their success ratio, according to CEO John Livingston, is about 75 percent while the general figure for stolen notebook recovery in North America is a meager 2 percent.

One of the great strengths of the Absolute software is that it is embedded in the machine's basic input and output system (bios), so it survives the complete deletion and replacement of an operating system that itself could identify the legal owner. Absolute is so confident in their product that they reimburse clients with $1000 if they don't recover a missing machine within a 60 days.

In North America where most of Absolute's 1, 000, 000 plus subscribers currently reside, there are more than 30 million notebooks. 54 percent of Americans between 18 and 30 already own one, but only about 3 percent of these are protected by any location software. And... this year, the number of mobile PCs in America will go through the roof when 140 million new notebooks are shipped worldwide.

2007 is the first year in which new mobiles will outnumber new desktops. Everyone already knows that it's a mobile age. The news is that notebook theft is also about to grow virally.

Executives at Absolute, XTool and CyberAngel all describe America's burgeoning underground economy based on the cut-rate resale of electronic devices and the collection and illegal resale of stolen notebook data. If you think about it, you'll realize that wild stories about stolen laptops are already crowding newspapers and the Internet.

In February, Denver's former city attorney bought a cut-rate laptop with CompuTrace on it in a parking lot for $150 before being caught by police and forced to resign. The same police force also later arrested the 'laptop bandit', a local soldier who stole machines at gunpoint from coffeeshops in Colorado's capital. In Tampa recently, as the Outback Steakhouse prepared for a corporate merger, all its laptops went missing from the employee's cubicles over lunch. And... last year, two jacked notebooks containing the entire UC alumni-donor database cost the California Universities more than $2 million dollars because state privacy legislation requires vicitmized institutions to notify everyone whose cyber-information has been stolen.

So these days, tracking software companies are about to experience huge market growth because, for notebook users, the lack of mobile tracking software is increasingly like 'going commando.' You're simply making too much information about yourself available too easily when you don't make every effort to recover a stolen device.

To my mind, the biggest manufacturer with the largest corporate client base is Absolute, but the coolest program is the photo snapping XTool because it offers worldwide service on notebook or MacBook for 49.95. A similar program for MacBook's only is offered by a Belgian company called Orbicule. Another player is CyberAngel which doesn't service MacBooks despite its large educational client base. As a result of their unique wifi signal-strength tracking abilities, CyberAngel can pinpoint the location of an active notebook to within 10 meters. For this reason, they claim recovery figures that actually exceed Absolute's at about 82 percent. All of these manufacturers have free demo versions available right now for download.

Notebook owners, start your engines!