PC PhoneHome tracks missing computers
- By Michelle Speir
- May 13, 2002
If stashing your agency's notebook computer under the hotel bed during business trips is not your idea of tight security, you have probably considered additional safety measures. Although there are many products on the market that help protect data, what about recovery of the notebook itself?
Brigadoon Software Inc. answers this question with its new software package called PC PhoneHome. PC PhoneHome, which costs just $29.95, sends a stealth e-mail each time a computer connects to the Internet, providing the IP address being used as well as the machine's serial number and ownership information.
That data can be turned over to law enforcement agencies, which can contact the Internet service provider associated with that IP address and ask for the phone number used to make the connection. The phone number can then be used to locate the machine.
The key to PC PhoneHome is its invisibility to the user. It does not appear in the disk directory, task manager or control panel, so someone absconding with a computer will not realize it is armed. And because it takes less than a minute of connection time for PC PhoneHome to send a stealth e-mail, even the shortest Internet sessions are enough to track the machine.
PC PhoneHome is available in three versions. PC PhoneHome Lite is a free application that sends stealth e-mails, but unlike the paid versions, it can be removed from the hard drive by running simple format, low-level format or FDISK procedure disk-formatting utilities.
PC PhoneHome Pro, which we tested, is appropriate for individuals or small installations. Unlike the Lite version, it can withstand disk-formatting procedures.
PC PhoneHome Enterprise is designed for efficient multiple-copy installations. Although the Pro version requires the administrator to enter all of the system and ownership information on each machine, the Enterprise version has that data "hard-wired" into the package before delivery. That way, administrators can use push technology or ghosting to install the software on many machines at once.
All three versions are compatible with Microsoft Corp. Windows 95, 98, Me, NT 4.0, 2000 and XP, as well as Apple Computer Inc. Macintosh OS 8.6 to OS X. It will soon include compatibility with the Linux, Palm Inc. and Pocket PC operating systems. The software can be used with desktop PCs and portables.
Installation is simple and reasonably fast. The main task is collecting the system information and filling out an on-screen form. PC PhoneHome asks for the Simple Mail Transfer Protocol (SMTP) server name, an e-mail address for that server and the e-mail address to which the tracking messages should be sent.
User registration information includes name, organization address, phone numbers, and a unique user ID or code word. Finally, the user must fill in manufacturer, model number and serial number information for the machine.
Users need to reset the boot sequence so the machine only boots from the hard drive. They should also protect this setting with a supervisory password. Otherwise, someone could boot from the floppy or CD-ROM drive and possibly delete PC PhoneHome.
We had no trouble installing the software, but our first test was buggy: The program sent 33 e-mails to our designated account instead of just one. We also had 33 accompanying returned e-mails from Brigadoon's tech support center.
Brigadoon sent us a patch to fix the problem of the multiple e-mails. As for the returned e-mails from the tech center, Brigadoon told us the problem should be fixed soon.
After installing the patch, we connected to the Internet again, and this time we received two e-mails (plus two returned e-mails from the tech center). This was certainly an improvement, but still one e-mail too many.
We discovered, however, that users can effectively disable PC PhoneHome if they know where to change the SMTP information recorded by the software. We would not have known about it if Brigadoon hadn't directed us to make some registration adjustments, but the fact that it can be accessed by any user could be a loophole.
The most important caveat about PC PhoneHome is that it does not protect the data on a computer. A thief still has access to all unprotected data.
As a physical recovery device, PC PhoneHome is an inexpensive, effective way to track the location of a missing computer. We were impressed with how quickly the program sends the stealth e-mail after connecting to the Internet. In our tests, the e-mails were always sent within 30 seconds. The program is also simple to install and manage. Just keep in mind that it's not completely foolproof and it will not protect your data.