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Taking a Byte Outta Crime: AST Tries Anti-Theft Software

September 08, 1997|P.J. HUFFSTUTTER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

AST Research Inc. wants your PC to phone home.

As part of its mid-September launch of new products, AST has added an anti-theft software program to its Ascentia line of portable PCs.

CompuTrace, developed by Absolute Software of Vancouver, Canada, acts as a sort of LoJack for the laptop.

When the computer's modem is plugged into a phone line, CompuTrace regularly calls in to the CompuTrace Monitoring Center. With each call, the software sends the center a data packet detailing the machine's serial number, its CompuTrace registration ID and the telephone number the computer is using to dial outside.

If the computer is stolen, the owner contacts the CompuTrace Recovery team in Canada. The next time the laptop is connected to an outside line and contacts the tracking company, the software kicks into theft mode. The software dials out once a minute, each time pinpointing the phone line in use.

"We can get the number even if the caller ID is blocked or the number is unlisted," said Pete Smyth, a spokesman for Absolute. "Once the computer is located, we work with the local law enforcement to recover it."

Absolute charges users $60 annually as a monitoring fee.

The demand for such security measures follows the growth of computer theft, Smyth said. Approximately $1.4 billion in personal computers were stolen in 1996, up 28% from 1995, according to Safeware, a Cleveland-based PC insurer firm.

And earlier this year, the FBI noted a somber statistic: Nearly 90% of all stolen computer equipment is never recovered.

"Laptop computers are especially vulnerable because they're so portable," said Alison Unden, AST manager for notebooks. "We saw [CompuTrace] as a really good opportunity to focus on the technology to protect itself."

P.J. Huffstutter covers high technology for The Times. She can be reached at (714) 966-7830 and at p.j.huffstutter@latimes.com

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