I am buying a new Thinkpad with an in-built GPS/Cellular modem. I am thinking what are the best practices for making the notebook secure in case of theft. I am planning to do full disk encryption and use ESET NOD anti-theft tracking option when somebody logs in to Windows in case of theft(don't know how useful that will be since the disk is encrypted but still.). I am thinking whether it is possible to track the computer when the computer is powered off. Would it be possible to keep the GPS module activated all the time as long as the battery is attached? Are there any other good practices for making the computer more secure in such events?

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    Bear in mind that some anti-theft or tracking technologies are effectively rootkits, and installing or activating them may reduce your security or privacy. Sep 1 '16 at 19:10

A GPS receiver uses a non-negligible amount of power; even more so if it also transmits its measured position (source: my smartphone; when the GPS is activated, battery life time drops from about 4 days down to less than 1 day). Making an active tracking device up and running whenever a battery is attached may thus lower the laptop autonomy.

Also, battery removal is quite easy on many laptops. If the thief thinks that a battery-powered GPS tracker is present then he may simply remove the battery.

Anyway, a GPS-based tracking device may deter a thief only if the thief is aware of the feature, and thus decides not to grab the laptop and run. It requires even more: the device is a good deterrent only if police forces follow through, i.e. they really use tracking information to pursue and arrest the thieves. Right now, not enough laptops have such a tracking feature, and most will transmit the data only when actually booting up. A laptop thief who is after the hardware (for its reselling value) will simply reformat the disk, not letting it boot up. A more advanced criminal who is after the data will remove the hard drive and hook it on another computer, thus bypassing the GPS tracker.

It so happens that there are many sloppy amateurs in the laptop-stealing business. Many will grab the hardware opportunistically, and then go straight to their home, and boot up the machine "to see what it contains". In that situation, tracking applications like Prey may help: when the machine starts, it records its location (with the GPS) and sends it automatically. With such apps, you may contain the damage from a laptop theft within reasonable limits -- sometimes you can even recover the laptop.

If your data is valuable, though, you cannot really expect that attackers will be so bad at what they do. Targeted attacks will be performed by people who know what they are after, and who will do things properly:

  • Wrapping the laptop in tinfoil just after stealing it (apparently it works if you put a dozen layers).
  • Battery removal (just in case).
  • Extraction of the hard disk for inspection on another computer.

Hard disk encryption (preferably the whole disk, not just a dedicated partition), with a strong password, will be a much more efficient method to keep the data safe.

  • Is the receiver battery life tied in to how frequently it updates it's position? A phone might want to do that so it can give you accurate directions while driving, but if all you need to do is update like 3 times an hour, might that improve the receiver battery efficiency? Jun 23 '14 at 17:35

First I kind of agree with there being little point to have a fully encrypted computer having a tracking system that is based on that the culprit having gained access.

Depending on your flavor, I could add using for example Kali OS, and writing down the password that destroys the encrypted partition on the computer could be an additional touch for the wicked mind.

For trackers, I can speculate about buying rather small ones (for example aimed at tracking your children) and finding space for them inside the laptop.

There is another thread: Are there GPS tracker for laptops?

  • But is it possible to use the in-built tracker(gps/3g/cellular modem) ? In my case Sierra EM7345 or erricson N5321? Jun 23 '14 at 16:58
  • @user2879175 that card isn't a tracker, it just transmits the GPS data to the laptop which then decides what to do with it, so unless your laptop is always on (that'll kill your battery in a few hours), it's not possible.
    – user42178
    Jun 23 '14 at 18:02

I would not even try to mess with GPS or other tracking, and then hope that the laptop's location can be pinpointed accurately enough in a densely populated area.

GPS accuracy is poor in cities (30 meters on the average); what are you going to do, go knock at all doors on a 30-meter radius and look for laptops like yours? Hopefully you've put some stickers on it, and hopefully, its location is not in some tall building, which would compound the difficulty by a factor of how many floors it has.

Do you hope law enforcement will help you? What if your laptop is stolen in a foreign country and you don't speak the language?

Will the cost of finding the laptop, and the risks (maybe its location is in a favela) be outweighed by the value of its hardware? (I do assume you're running periodic data backups into the cloud.)

Here's what I would do:

Print a sticker and place it inside the laptop, on the hinge or near the trackpad, that says something about rewarding its finder - to give the thief the opportunity to save face - and to actually help a legitimate good Samaritan who finds your laptop.

Something like this, in the local language:

Reward if found: US$500. I am a forgetful person and lose things.

WhatsApp: ... / Phone: ...

Email: xxx@yyy.com

The reward value should be higher than what the thief would expect to get for the laptop. Look up prices for used laptops of your model on Facebook Marketplace or similar. That makes "returning" the laptop to you the easiest fastest and most profitable choice for the thief. Of course, this assumes a somewhat rational thief, but you can increase your odds of recovery when/if you get contacted by claiming you forgot the laptop around the are where it was stolen.

What you really save with this tactic is the hassle of getting a replacement laptop and reconfiguring everything on it. Adjust the reward value accordingly.

Alternatively, you can purchase special-purpose stickers that attach to the laptop's exterior so that removing them leaves a chemically etched marking and make the laptop (or at least the parts where you stick them) harder to resell. STOP Security Plates are an example, recommended by MIT for their students.

STOP anti-theft Plates

  • You don't use GPS tracking to look for a stationary asset. You use the movement of the asset to physically locate it.
    – schroeder
    Feb 20 '20 at 7:34
  • @schroeder: what if it doesn't move? What if it moves when you're not looking, or able to intervene? Feb 21 '20 at 11:26
  • You were saying that GPS wouldn't work at all because of a particular use case. I'm saying that you are correct in that the use case doesn't apply. That's not what GPS tracking is meant for.
    – schroeder
    Feb 21 '20 at 14:58

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