Digital World: Little lost laptop

For years now, millions of computer users have been "donating" their downtime computer's processing power in the hope of finding a voice from the Great Beyond who will deign to talk to us mere mortals

laptop 88 (photo credit: )
laptop 88
(photo credit: )
For years now, millions of computer users have been "donating" their downtime computer's processing power in the hope of finding a voice from the Great Beyond who will deign to talk to us mere mortals. Well, either the aliens out there are a bunch of snobs who want nothing to do with us, or they've gone on permanent vacation, without leaving behind a forwarding address. Despite the millions, maybe billions, of processing hours used by participants so far, the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence - a/k/a Seti@Home - has not yet yielded and bona fide space alien type missives. No aliens, but it has found at least one thing - a stolen laptop. Seti@Home (, as you may know, is a collaborative project that runs a program over masses of computers utilizing their processors when they aren't doing any computing - like when you leave them on to download a large file and the computer is just collecting data, for the most part. Seti members install a special screen saver that reports back to Alien Central, connecting with servers and satellites to analyze data collected by space agencies around the world in order to figure out whether the electronic signals picked up from deep space mean anything intelligible. When you connect with the Seti system, the computers running the main program make a note of your IP address, and, by extension, your location - since the address of your ISP is recorded in DNS servers and assigned geographically. It's no different than the recording of your IP address by any Web site you connect to, actually, but Seti members can apparently parse the Seti participant databases at UC Berkeley, which sponsors the program. Why bother recording the participant's IP address? I guess it makes the mass of data collected by Seti computers easier to parse, plus, Seti folk will be able to pay homage to the computer that actually makes "first contact." In the case of James Melin, however ( Seti found not an alien, but a stolen laptop. Since the Seti screensaver was installed on a laptop stolen from the family, James figured the thief, or the person who purchased the machine, would try to connect to the Internet, but probably wouldn't be bright enough to reformat the laptop before using it. He turned out to be right, and a little digging led him to the thief's ISP, and eventually to the crook! Apparently, Seti has been having some financial problems recently (, but I'm betting that its user base grows dramatically in the wake of this story, which illustrates how to do for free what a host of companies charge big bucks for. A laptop is one of the most vulnerable electronic devices around. Cell phones are easier to steal, of course, but casual thieves won't be able to make use of them for more than a day or two, since the victim will cancel his/her account immediately, and assigning the phone to a new account could raise questions. PDAs are also smaller and technically easier to lift, but Palms and Windows CE devices usually go in the owner's pocket, entailing the risk of getting caught pickpocketing, in many cases. Laptops are more attractive to thieves than cell phones, because they're basically generic, in that anyone can reinstall Windows and start using a machine they've pilfered and, because they're not always on the person of the victim, a good crook who knows how to create a diversion will have an easier time lifting one. So how do you track down a stolen laptop? According to Absolute Software, which sells the very popular Computrace recovery system, "The analysis of a computer theft reveals that laptops connect to the Internet soon after they've been stolen. Whether thieves are reinstalling software, connecting through a wireless card or whether it is the new owners surfing the Internet, all computers connect back to the Internet," meaning that the best way to track down a stolen laptop is to see what it's doing on the Internet after it "disappears." The Computrace LoJack (named after the stolen car detection system) software records the connection data via its installed agent, and when a customer calls the company to report a stolen laptop, Computrace seeks out the laptop when it goes on-line, and when it finds a connection, the company alerts local police, who can track down the laptop with the cooperation of the thieves' ISP. According to the company, Computrace can survive even a reformat of the hard drive, and is willing to guarantee the program's performance, giving victims who don't get their machines back as much as $1,000 ( At $50 per unit, it's not a bad "insurance policy." But why spend $50 - or install an alien nation screensaver - when you can get the same effective IP reporting for free? All you have to do is set up a batch file that will read your computer's IP address and automatically mail it to an inbox (preferably one not on the laptop) and you'll have the same information the professional programs use to track lost or stolen laptops, information that you, too, can bring to the cops in order to file a complaint - and maybe even get your machine back. In order to pull this off on a Windows laptop, you need to get a free program that will allow you to send an e-mail from within a script, such as the free SendMail utility for Windows. You download the program and drop it into your Windows/System32 folder and you'll be able to access it from the command line in any directory on your computer. Once that's done, all you have to do is write a simple batch script that will read the computer's Internet configuration information and e-mail to an address of your choice. You use the ipconfig/all command to list all laptop's IP address, gateway, and DNS servers, and then use the SendMail utility to send the information to a POP account. List both commands in a text file, use the header @echo off in the first line, save and change the file's extension from .txt to .bat - and your batch file is ready to run. After that, all you have to do is set up as a scheduled event. In Windows, just open Control Panel, click on Scheduled Tasks, and follow the wizard to set up your batch file to run whenever you want. I set mine up as separate events, to be run when the computer is turned on and at 3 PM every day, in case the machine gets moved from one network to another. Could the thieves reformat the disk? They could, but that would effectively wipe out any protection given by any program (regardless of claims to the contrary). Most thieves aren't geeks - otherwise, they'd be making their money in tech or running a sophisticated computerized credit card number scam, not engaging in petty theft. Unfortunately, according to statistics, the vast majority of laptops - over 95% - are never recovered after being stolen. Still, not too many people have any protection whatsoever to help them recover their laptops - and only readers of this column get the "royal" treatment, telling them how to get the information on their computer's new whereabouts for free!