Stolen laptops "broadcast" their location to rightful owners

Published 29 September 2008

Huskies researchers develop a software tool which uses the Internet as a homing beam; if the thief uses the stolen laptop to connect to the Internet, the owner receives information on the laptop location (and Macintosh owners also recvied a picture of the thief)

U.S. researchers have developed a software theft-protection tool which may be used to track the location of a laptop when it is connected to the Internet. The tool, developed by engineers at the University of Washington and the University of California, San Diego is named Adeona after the Roman goddess of safe returns, and is posted at .

It works by using the Internet as a homing beacon. Once Adeona is installed, the machine will occasionally send its Internet protocol address and related information to OpenDHT, a free online storage network. This information can be used to establish the computer’s general location. On a Macintosh computer, Adeona also uses the computer’s internal camera to take a photo that it sends to the same server.

Unlike commercial systems, in which users surrender their location information to a company, Adeona scrambles the information so it must be deciphered using a password known only by the person who set up the account. If the laptop is stolen, only the original owner can access the location data (and, for Macintosh users, a photo). The owner can then bring this information to the police to aid in tracking down the stolen machine.

Gabriel Maganis, who recently received his UW undergraduate degree in computer engineering, said: “Adeona is free and easy to install, so anyone who owns a laptop, or even a small company, can use it to track their assets. We’re really hoping laptop users all over the world will install it on their machines.”

The tool resulted from an experiment in privacy protection that began two years ago. Tadayoshi Kohno, a UW assistant professor of computer science and engineering, said: “We wanted to build a tool that allows you to track the location of your laptop but at the same time doesn’t allow someone else to track you. Typically when you create a forensics trail, you leave breadcrumbs that you can see, but so can everyone else. We’ve created a private forensics trail where only you can see those breadcrumbs.”

Since Adeona’s public release, more than 50,000 people have downloaded the software under the open source license. The current version works on desktop and laptop machines running Windows, Macintosh, or Linux. Researchers say they have already received requests for an iPhone version.

Thomas Ristenpart, a doctoral student at the University of California, San Diego, said: “Platforms such as the iPhone enable development of more software programs that use geographic information in fun and useful ways. Many of these applications could benefit from mechanisms for preserving user location privacy.”

New school song

Talking about the University of Washington, we note that the Huskies have a new school song. With lyrics by school senior Catherine Henderson and music by award-winning composer Bill Conti, the song — “Rise Up With Pride for Washington” — will played publicaly for the first time by the Husky band  at the 8 November Arizona State football game. Here is tie first stanza:

Rise up with pride for Washington,
For Purple and for Gold.
From far and wide we meet as one;
As Huskies proud and bold.