Riding The Cloud To Victory; or, I Got My Laptop Stolen (Part 1)

Typical disclaimer about how I don’t update anymore, blah blah blah. Life is great and full of wonder, or, the night is dark and full of terrors. Either way, I’m busy and trying to enjoy every minute of the short life I have. You should too!

I recently had my laptop stolen. Yes, it sucked. It’s not a pleasant experience, imaging someone going through your personal affects (it was in a messenger bag), looking at my decor and organizational strategies and sneering with delight. Of course, I have no idea what they’re doing – they could have smashed it on the side of the road, or it could be halfway to China by now with a new MAC address. Of the three apps I used to try and track it, none of them: Find my Mac, Prey, or Tile, turned up anything the day after it was stolen out of my car (a smash and grab job), a few feet away from where I was quietly sitting in a cafe. This, of course, is not surprising: in order for the apps to work, they would need a constant internet connection. Since there was already a secure password set on my computer, the thieves probably spent little time cracking it and immediately opted to reformat the hard drive, which would delete the tracking software I had installed. The Tile locator, which works via Bluetooth, had a slightly better chance, attempting to ping off other Tile users in the area, but the app’s popularity doesn’t really warrant much success in this area. The locator was also attached to the laptop case which was easily removable.

This also begs the question: where the thieves intelligent, or dumb? Their behavior can tell a victim or law enforcement a lot about where to look. Unfortunately, I’ll probably never know what happened, and there is little recourse for a situation like this. However, some precautionary measures like a better car alarm, putting valuables in the trunk, and increased vigilance, would make quite a bit of difference.

Another potential issue with WiFi based trackers like Prey or Find my Mac (via iCloud) are they require a user to have the computer open and connected to WiFi. If you have a password set for your user account, as I did, this won’t work. However, if you leave your account password un-protected, you’re in business; here’s a success story using Prey for this method. As the comments bear out: this is not a tenable option for me – if I leave my laptop without a password, a thief would have access to all my files, cloud back-ups, and Google Chrome with hundreds of passwords saved. An alternative solution would be a guest account with no password (called a “honeypot” for this use) that Prey still runs on in the background. I plan to employ this solution when my new laptop (this time with some sort of insurance) arrives.

Setting a firmware password would block the hard drive reformatting, which could by you some extra time as a thief becomes frustrated and may try to guess your password again (obviously secure passwords are a must!) An alternative is LoJack, which claims to be embeddable in the firmware of the device itself, thus surviving reboots, reformats, and I would imagine even hardware modification. They claim to “work with law enforcement” to give your device back, which may or may not be a good thing. I’m interested in this, though it seems to bring up privacy concerns by the number of “remove LoJack” videos that exist on YouTube. A low-tech, alternative solution is an anti-theft sticker that becomes nearly impossible to remove, betraying the item’s true nature (and making it less attractive to steal, from, say, a coffee shop).

Clearly, I’ve thought a bit about this in the last few days. In Part 2 I’ll detail why the disaster wasn’t so great after – almost all my data was backed up to either the cloud, or a local Time Machine disk. Cloud back-ups can be nebulous, so I plan to discuss my history with it and offer some of what I feel are the best solutions currently.

Note: it should be said that while Find my Mac/iPhone/iPad comes free with iCloud and OS X/iOS, and while Prey offers a free version. LoJack does require an annual license for its premium software. Use at your own risk!

Note 2: an alternative solution would also be so low-tech I didn’t even think of it in the first place: don’t own an expensive laptop, don’t travel with it, or at the very least, keep it on your person if it’s so damn valuable. I’m constantly reminded of how incredible it is; the worth that we apply to pieces of metal and mineral with a fruit logo on them.

Update 1/17/15: As there is no BIOS in Macbook Pros; a firmware based installation of LoJack seems impossible. Strange, as Apple often tries to bundle theĀ software as an add on.