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Tracking your gadgets

By Hiawatha Bray
Globe Staff / March 4, 2010

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Perhaps the worst thing about portable devices is that they’re so easy to carry around, we can barely hang on to them. Asurion, a Kansas City company that insures portable devices, says Americans lose about 60 million cellphones every year. Our laptop computers don’t fare much better. A 2008 study by Ponemon Institute LLC, a research outfit in Traverse City, Mich., calculated that every week, 12,000 laptops are lost or stolen in the nation’s airports alone.

Luckily, some gadgets are smart enough to call for help. A Portland, Ore., company called GadgetTrak has created some smart software to help them do it.

I tested two of their products. One was PC-Trak, for hunting down lost or stolen Windows laptops, which costs $25 a year. There’s also a version for Apple Macintosh laptops, which I didn’t try. The other was GadgetTrak for BlackBerry smartphones, which sells for a one-time price of $25. It is also available for phones that use Microsoft’s Windows Mobile software, but it’s not yet offered for Google Android phones. There’s a free version for Apple’s iPhone, but it lacks some advanced features. Apple famously prevents iPhone applications from running constantly in the background, a limitation that cripples GadgetTrak on the iPhone.

But on other devices, the software was simple to use and technically impressive. Say your laptop has turned up missing. If it’s loaded with PC-Trak, and somebody turns it on and connects it to the Internet, you’ll have a fighting chance of getting it back. The PC-Trak software loads up automatically when the machine is booted, and sends a ping over the Internet to the main GadgetTrak server. But nothing happens unless you’ve notified the company that you’ve lost your laptop. In that case, PC-Trak swings into action.

The program uses software developed by Skyhook Wireless Inc. of Boston to identify the laptop’s location to within about 100 feet. Most laptops don’t have built-in GPS chips for precise tracking, but Skyhook has created its own Wi-Fi profile of the nation by mapping thousands of wireless hotspots all over the United States. As soon as your laptop picks up a couple of nearby Wi-Fi routers, it’ll tell you where it is.

In addition, PC-Trak captures the laptop’s IP address, which reveals which Internet service it’s connected to. Then there’s the webcam - most late-model laptops have one right over the display screen. Bad news for crooks, because PC-Trak snaps a picture of whoever’s at the keyboard.

PC-Trak scoops up all this data and transmits it to the laptop’s owner, complete with a Google Map of the machine’s approximate location. The user can now pay a visit and ask nicely for his computer back, or call the cops.

One drawback is the system’s inability to remotely shut down the computer, or delete sensitive information. Company founder and chief executive Ken Westin told me they’re planning to add these features in future editions.

But these features are already included with GadgetTrak’s BlackBerry edition. This one works with help from SMS text messaging technology.

Say you lose your phone. With GadgetTrak, you text a message to the phone that includes your unique password. Then you can choose from a set of commands. Of course, there’s the nuclear option: a command to permanently wipe all data on the phone. But before going that far, you could order the phone to send you its GPS latitude and longitude to help track it down. Another command not only locks all the phone’s buttons, but also causes it to emit a loud siren that’ll terrorize anybody within 50 feet. This one’s not really expected to frighten away thieves, Weston said. It’s really meant to help absent-minded types who keep leaving the phone under the sofa cushions.

GadgetTrak for the BlackBerry only works with phones based on the GSM standard. Two of the four biggest carriers - AT&T and T-Mobile - use GSM, but forget about GadgetTrak if you’ve got a Verizon- or Sprint-based BlackBerry.

GSM phones use interchangeable SIM cards. If the phone is stolen, the thief can make it his own by plugging in a new card. But GadgetTrak will send a text message to a friend or family member when the phone’s SIM card is replaced. The message includes the phone’s latitude and longitude and its new number. Now you can call the BlackBerry’s new “owner’’ and give him a good scare.

Of course, you’re better off hanging on to your stuff in the first place. Good luck with that. Meanwhile, thanks to GadgetTrak, there’s a chance your wayward gadgets will find their way home.

Hiawatha Bray can be reached at bray@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @watha.

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