Free Software Helps You
Track Your Laptop If Stolen or Lost
October 1, 2008
Researchers at the University of Washington and the University of California, San Diego have created a laptop theft-protection tool that will help you locate your lost or stolen laptop while at the same time ensuring that no third party can use the system to monitor your whereabouts.
Thomas Ristenpart, a computer science PhD student student at UC San Diego, is one of the creators of Adeona.
The tool, named Adeona, works by using the Internet as a homing beacon. It will help you find the location of a lost or stolen laptop, but only after someone connects it to the Internet. Cryptographic safeguards built into the system prevent anyone but you from monitoring your whereabouts.
Named Adeona after the Roman goddess of safe returns, the system can be downloaded for free here.
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.
The primary creators of Adeona are Thomas Ristenpart, a doctoral student at UC San Diego, who worked on this project as a UW visiting student in summer 2007; Gabriel Maganis, who recently received his UW undergraduate degree in computer engineering; Tadayoshi Kohno, a UW assistant professor of computer science and engineering who received his computer science PhD from UCSD; and Arvind Krishnamurthy, a UW research assistant professor of computer science and engineering.
Adeona was initially released for free under an open source license in June 2008 and technical details were presented in July at USENIX Security Symposium in San Jose, CA. UC San Diego computer science graduate student Thomas Ristenpart presented more on the topic at the ToorCon computer security conference in San Diego on September 28. His ToorCon talk is entitled “Privacy-preserving Location Tracking of Lost or Stolen Devices: Cryptographic Techniques and Replacing Trusted Third Parties with DHTs.”
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. The owner can then bring this information to the police to aid in tracking down the stolen machine. Even if the free OpenDHT storage network was hacked, the information would remain private.
On a Macintosh computer, Adeona also uses the computer’s internal camera to take a photo that it sends to the same server.
“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,” Maganis said. “We are 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.
“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,” Kohno said. “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.”
More broadly, the research investigates ways to maintain privacy in a world where geographic tracking is becoming increasingly common.
“Platforms such as the iPhone enable development of more and 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,” Ristenpart said.
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 numerous requests for an iPhone version.
“People like it because it’s open source,” Maganis said. “That’s what we’re hearing.”
Companies offer features that might justify paying a fee, but they too can learn from Adeona to ensure clients’ privacy, Maganis said. “Companies can adapt our techniques to provide high levels of privacy for their own services.”
*This press release was derived from the University of Washington press release
Media Contact: Daniel Kane, 858-534-3262