Can I use software to find out who stole my laptop? Faced with a choice between your £1,000 MacBook Air and your £1,000 antique grandfather clock, most burglars wouldn't think twice; grandfather clocks don't slip neatly into a bag. But the ability to operate computers remotely via the internet – a subject we featured last month – is giving victims of theft a good chance of finding out who swiped their machine.
When a thief gets your laptop home it's fairly likely that they'll connect to the internet with it. And when they do, services such as logmein.com or Apple's Back to My Mac (provided that you were registered with them before the theft) can immediately tell that the machine is online – and let you see exactly what's happening; you can watch as emails are written, websites are visited, and you can take screengrabs of the lot. When you sense that the stolen computer is sitting idle, you can leap into action; use whats myip.com to find out the IP address the thief is operating from and, if your laptop has a built-in webcam, just turn it on remotely, giving you a perfect mugshot when they return to the machine. Two criminals in New York were recently nabbed using exactly this method (see d95.com/laptop1), while reader John S directed us via the Cyberclinic blog to a similar saga which was happily resolved a few days ago (see d95. com/laptop2) – although in the latter case the police needed some persuading before they took the evidence seriously.
But this clever trick is catching on; software such as Orbicule for the Mac and LoJack for the PC even does the sleuthing for you, collecting all the screenshots and IP addresses on your behalf. Some thieves may be wise to all this, and will immediately lock you out. But most won't be hi-tech whizzes, and will leave a heap of clues that will lead the police right to their door.
Email technology gripes to email@example.com, or join the discussions on the blog at www.independent.co.uk/cyberclinic. Currently under discussion: What capabilities will our mobile phones have in 10 years time?