14 Comments

Summary:

As someone who both works in a high-theft environment (university campus, anyone?) and who owns a piece of portable Apply goodness that contains my entire life, I’m rather concerned about security and theft prevention. I had considered a laptop lock, but considerations of how much I […]

As someone who both works in a high-theft environment (university campus, anyone?) and who owns a piece of portable Apply goodness that contains my entire life, I’m rather concerned about security and theft prevention. I had considered a laptop lock, but considerations of how much I really do move my laptop about and memories of picking one of those Kensington locks with a ballpoint pen (just to see if I could) dissuaded me from that. There’s also the option to get my Mac etched with my name and email address, but that’s pricey, detrimental to resale value, and offers no help in actually recovering my precious if it does get stolen.

If hardware’s not the option, then, how about software? The most well-known product for this, I suspected, was LoJack. They offer a fairly straightforward and tested service at 49.99 a year. Being me,though, that’s never good enough – I like options. A little more poking about brought me to Undercover, a Mac-only utility that purports to do much the same as LoJack. Now, of course, there’s no way to really test either service without getting my laptop stolen – and I think reporting it stolen as a test would be looked upon quite dimly by everyone involved – but Undercover looks like the better option to me.

Both of them work in much the same way: when your computer is stolen, you call or email their tracking center with the unique machine ID that you get when you register. Under normal operations, your machine pings the server to check that it hasn’t been reported stolen; if not, it does nothing. When that changes, however, and the call home reports a theft, the computer begins reporting its IP address and other information (which varies by solution) to the monitor.

Pro’s and Con’s

LoJack is well-known and has a fairly good track record, but I’ve used it before and not been happy with its memory usage. The installer was clumsy and the program felt very much like a windows port. (Yes, things like that do bother me.) It’s also US$49.99 per year, which is steep, especially as a continuing cost. (I don’t think I’ve seen anything that pricey since the days when there really was no good freeware AV for Windows, heh.) When stolen, all the machine does is call home; the LoJack people then use the data it sends – evidently limited to IP address and other network info – to work with police to locate it. If they can’t locate it in 60 days, providing some conditions are met, they will refund the cost of the software.

Undercover is not so well-known, but I do like indie developers. It also, from what I can see, has a fairly good track record. While they don’t have as many recovery stories on their website as LoJack, they do go back a couple of years. The installer is quick and straightforward. It’s US$49 once, which is nice. When stolen, the machine calls home with network statistics, but it also sends screenshots and photos of the user (from the iSight, if your Mac has one.) It also has another trick up its sleeve, one that amuses the part of me that would wish painful things on anyone stealing my computer – if they can’t recover the Mac, Undercover first causes the screen to darken until it’s unusable, and then, when the IP address changes – particularly if it changes to one listed as an Apple shop – the Mac displays a message stating that it has been stolen, and listing contact information and a finder’s fee for return. Particularly snicker-worthy is that the machine will start shouting the text of that message

While I suspect that the difference in features is, in large part, enabled only by the standardization of hardware running OS X – Undercover works only on 10.4 or 10.5 – it’s a difference that I will readily take advantage of. If my Mac were to get stolen, I rather like the idea of it making as much of a nuisance of itself as possible. But that’s me. Audience participation time: what would you recommend? Has anyone out there gotten a laptop back with either of these – or any other -methods? Tell us in the comments.

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  1. I purchased loJack, but I think Undercover would have been better, due to the Obtrusiveness of the product.

  2. Robert Thille Friday, April 25, 2008

    If I were to steal a laptop, or other computer, I’d boot it from CD and wipe it first thing…but then thieves are generally thieves not because they are brilliant…

  3. Partners in Grime Friday, April 25, 2008

    Set up a .Mac “Back to My Mac” account as well. If a Leopard-based machine gets stolen you could log in and get or delete certain files.

  4. Another cool thing about Undercover is their family plan. For an extra $10, you can cover three machines. I did a recent comparison of both packages myself, and chose Undercover. The family pack is what finally sold me on it. I just bought my wife a new Macbook, and the idea of adding theft protection to it for just $10 was too much to resist.

  5. In response to comment #2:

    This is from Undercover’s FAQ-

    “If you install Apple’s firmware password, your Mac can not be formatted without knowing your firmware password.

    Undercover definitely sounds like the better option.

  6. I had heard rumors that Under Cover had gone out of business and was not responding to phone calls or emails. Can any one confirm this one way or another?

  7. Stolen Mac get Returned | Rick Tech Saturday, April 26, 2008

    [...] for something like this myself I did a bit more research and came across a review of Undercover on The Apple Blog. Stories like this always make me thing, what would I do to protect my [...]

  8. There is another company called GadgetTrak that has similar software, they use the built-in camera to capture video of the thief and the software sends the data to the owner. Also have software for mobile phones, iPods and other devices.

  9. I once left my macbook pro in the back seat of a taxi. Had I not got a hold of the taxi company before someone else got a hold of my computer I would have inadvertently given it away. These software would have aided the unsuspecting recipient to become nobel citizen.

  10. Michael Clark Sunday, April 27, 2008

    I went the do-it-myself route with a shell script that runs regularly and phones home to my web server. If my machine ever walks away, I can look in my server logs to get the IP address of my wayward computer to start the legal processes running to track the IP address. But I do like Undercover’s options too.

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