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A recent laptop theft, as well as concern that the data upon it might be deliberately accessed (on a drive with encryption or not), head lead me to think about how one might retroactively seek to regain possession of such a laptop, or at least how one might go about gaining leads as to who might have taken it - or where it might be.

If the stolen device were to include a unique file - lets call it Project_X.doc - and this same file were on another device available to the aggrieved, then might it be possible to track down the location of the device through location of the mentioned file?

I am not sure how this might work.

One obvious way would be a trap file that might appeal to a would-be invader that proceeds to send information to a secure email recipient, revealing its location. Kind of virus-like. The only problem with this (besides assumption that it'll be juicy enough bait to bite) is that it involves a degree of foresight and is not a measure that can be applied retrospectively.

The same would apply to registering the device itself with an online site permitting for its tracking. Not retroactive.

Could there simply be two identical files - on for use as a 'fingerprint' file, and another within the stolen device - that could be used to track the location without foresight other than 'happening to have the same file' on another device?

It would also be appreciated if at least a brief 'why yes' or 'why not' could also be included. I am no security pro by many a yard :)

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You mean, like say, a MAC address, computer serial number, Windows license key, CPU serial number, hard drive serial numbers, etc, etc, etc. The problem is, an intelligent thief will either mask, block or change most of these and most of them, while able to be verified when you have a device in your possession are not easy to remotely discover, even if the thief is oblivious to possible technical measures and leaves it on and plugged directly in to the internet 24 hours a day.

This is the basic concept behind how much of the phone home software to prevent laptop theft works, but it still requires that the software go undetected and be connected to a network in order to be able to call home and the first thing any knowledgeable thieves will do is format the computer to be safe, thus wiping out any file or software on it that could help find the thief.

If you didn't have software that calls home installed, there may still be other ways to track it though. Login cookies, for example, may report themselves to service providers when the thief accesses that website. If you had your Gmail login saved and they go to Gmail, it will let Google know what IP your laptop is connecting from. These are pretty hit or miss though since you don't know which services they may access.

  • Certainly - deleting the files - including any would-be "fingerprint" file (the photo of your niece, for instance) would affect ones ability to locate the device - but I am assuming a situation where a thief might not immediately delete the data - whether due to underestimating the threat of retrospective tracking or due to being careless. Although the reference to encrypted disks would indicate a requirement to be a pro to do any kind of data accessing to begin with. – Avestron May 28 '14 at 14:23
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There are a few commercial products that allow you command and control of your machine after a theft.

Another option is to make yourself a little script that writes to a DB on a web-host or home server the current IP address and any other information you desire. have that script execute regularly via a chron task. This way its not a persistent process and less likely to be discovered.

Of course, neither of these protect against reformat.

  • This is certainly good to know. But this software (commercial or script) would require foresight on behalf of the user. What I was curious about was whether a unique file (regular in all ways other than that it is unique to the user - such as a personal photo) could be used to retro-actively seek out and locate a device after it is stolen. I am presuming that it is connected to a network - perhaps automatically via wi-fi. – Avestron May 28 '14 at 15:15

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