I have a friend whose laptop was stolen when he was traveling in France. The perpetrator broke into his hotel room, ripped open his luggage and took his Macbook. The hotel’s security camera tapes were handed to the police for investigation and now almost a year later, he never saw his laptop or heard from the police.
We all love our macs because it’s not just a piece of hardware, it’s a collection of all your personal data, photos you’ve taken, music that you like and for those who work off their Macs, their livelihood. Replacing the machine is one thing, but if you haven’t been backing up your data regularly then even a new mac without any pictures, tunes or even emails will never feel like you’ve really replaced it.
Truth be told, the chances of recovering a stolen laptop is close to zero but you can increase your chances by installing anti-theft software. There’s a few in the market, but today we’re going to look specifically at Phoenix, developed by a Singaporean company, BAK2u.
Phoenix installs as preference pane, which is good thing because it’s meant to remain hidden. When the thief turns on the Mac and an internet connection is established, he will be prompted to enter a password, failing which, the software will assume that the Mac is stolen and begin tracing the laptop.
Phoenix notifies you in a few ways but at it’s core, it uses Skyhook Wireless technology to ascertain your Mac’s position using a combination of GPS, Cellular Tower triangulation and Wi-Fi access points. With the location found, Phoenix is able to discreetly send you an email with the GPS location with a link to Google Maps and also an external IP address of the ISP your Mac is connected to. The software will also use the built-in iSight camera to take a short movie of the perpetrator’s face as he’s using your Mac. It could also be configured to send out updates to Twitter with the GPS location. The tweet formatting is a little off, but it’s nothing major. Furthermore, if you’ve set up your twitter account to notify you of tweets via your mobile, then it extends this functionality even more.
What I like about this software is that it should theoretically keep you constantly in the loop about your Mac’s location and these information will be very useful to the police to help recover your laptop. Also, I think Phoenix did one thing exceptionally well.
There exists a fine balance between how effective a tracking software is and how much personal information is being collated on a regular basis. The best tracking software would probably need a central server that can keep tabs of your Mac at any given point in time. However, this could so easily be exploited because of the 99.99% of the time you’re Mac is not stolen, someone somewhere knows exactly where you are. On the other end of the spectrum, if the software doesn’t know where to send the data to, then it’s nothing but a dud. The developers have clearly thought this out and Phoenix probably sits near the golden mean between privacy and utility.
No software is completely fool-proof and there’s some areas which can definitely be improved. I thought of a few ways to circumvent the software but I won’t post it here for security reasons. For all it’s worth, this software is effective enough if your Mac is taken by an average thief. If the burglar is moderately Mac-savvy and has done enough homework, it won’t be too difficult to deactivate this tracking software, assuming he/she knows it’s installed in the first place.
Phoenix retails at US$39.90 and it’s available here. I would definitely recommend that you consider this if you take your Mac when you’re on-the-go. There are some other software on the web but I like this for the fact that it respects a user’s need for privacy, yet is robust to contain enough alert mechanisms to make it useful in times of need.
Let’s just be clear that they offer no guarantee you’ll get your lost Mac back, in fact no software maker will ever do that. But if you’re unfortunate enough to lose your Mac, this will give you a fighting chance in recovering it. Look at it this way, any chance is better than zero.
Example of the email sent out from stolen laptop:
bq(#email).. From: email@example.com
Date: February 12, 2009 9:45:00 PM SST
Subject: Phoenix Alert message
Date & Time: 2009-02-12 21:44:32 +0800
External IP Addresses
MacBook Pro Information
Serial Number: System Serial#
MAC Address: 00:1b:63:97:1d:75
Host Name: John-lim-macbook-pro.local