Tracking down your wayward gadgets

This week, my CBC tech column (and podcast) is about how to track and recover lost or stolen gadgets. There’s a copy at and one below, for posterity. [audio:]

(mp3 download) And, as always, I’d sure appreciate it if you’d subscribe to the Misener on Tech podcast in iTunes.


It’s summer. And for many Canadians – myself included – that means travel. And if you’re anything like me, along with travel-sized tubes of toothpaste and sunscreen your luggage will contain gadgets – a smartphone, a tablet, an e-reader and all the requisite accessories and chargers.

But what happens when one of those pricey gadgets gets lost or stolen?

This week, as summer vacation season begins, I’d like to take a quick look at some high-tech (and low-tech) tools for recovering lost or stolen gadgets.

Personally, I tend to err on the side of caution, planning for when my device will be lost or stolen, not if my device will be lost or stolen.

A simple first step involves setting passwords. Whether it’s a smartphone, a laptop or a tablet, anything that can be locked with a password should be locked with a password. A password won’t make your device impenetrable, but it’s a good first line of defense – the digital equivalent of putting a lock on your front door. If someone really wants to break into your device, they’ll get in. But a password can help guard against casually prying eyes.

Another good step that you can take before a trip involves activating or installing tracking software, a service that’s cropped up over the past few years as more and more devices include built-in GPS and always-on internet connections.

Some devices have tracking functionality built right in. For instance, Apple offers a free service called Find my iPhone (though it also works for iPads and recent models of the iPod Touch) that you can use to locate a device, and if necessary, remotely wipe it. A few years ago, there were rumours about a similar service from RIM called BlackBerry Shield that never materialized. But several third-party BlackBerry apps offer the same kind of functionality.

My favourite tracking service, however, is a bit of free, open-source software called Prey. For laptops, it works on Windows, Mac and Linux. It also supports Android smartphone and tablets, and an iOS version is in development.

Here’s how Prey works: You install a small application on your device. Then, you forget about it. If the device is ever lost or stolen, you can go to the Prey website, and mark it as such. Prey then tries to connect to the device, and starts sending back reports about the device’s location, what programs are being used, what files have changed. If your device has a webcam, you can even instruct it to take photos.

There are many other tracking products and services available for almost all modern mobile devices. But here’s what they all have in common: they’re useless unless you know about them, and turn them on. The time to do that is *before* your device gets lost or stolen, not after.

That’s not all, though. To get the benefits from a tracking service, you not only have to have it enabled, but the device has to be powered on and connected to the internet. That’s their Achilles’ heel: without power, and without an internet connection, these services just don’t work. Over the past few years, there have been a number of stories about people using tracking tools to retrieve lost or stolen devices. I think that for the most part, savvy thieves are now well aware of these services, and will immediately power down and wipe a stolen device. Even though we’ve seen some success stories, my gut tells me that these tracking services are probably more effective for recovering a lost device than a stolen device.

There are also some lower-tech approaches to the lost gadget problem. For instance, I’ve been a paid user of a Canadian company called TrackItBack. The company sells special stickers that can be attached to almost anything. The stickers have a website address, telephone number and a unique ID printed on them. If anybody finds your lost device, they go to the website (or call in), reference the ID and TrackItBack arranges for shipping back to the owner. It’s a bit like the War Amps key return service, but for gadgets.

For me, the only downside of a system like TrackItBack is that it relies on the honesty of the person who finds your device. Not so helpful if your gadget is stolen. By the same token, you don’t need a fancy TrackItBack sticker for an honest person to independently help you retrieve your lost device. For example, when I tweeted about this column, @seanckelly responded, “I left an iPad at TO airport and I thought it was gone. A nl’er found it, sent it back to me 2 weeks later. #findmyiphonenotenabled”

Another low-tech technique is to keep records of your devices’ serial numbers, as this information can be useful to law enforcement or service providers. For instance, some types of cell phones can be tracked or deactivated by their serial number.

I think it’s important to remember that even though there are tools out there to help you recover a lost or stolen device, there are no guarantees. In the case of a lost device, you’re relying on the goodwill of the person who finds it. Or, if it’s stolen, you’re relying on the technical incompetence of a thief.

I think it’s also important to remember that even though tracking technologies and services exist, they aren’t a replacement for common sense or street smarts.

Just because you have a tracking service on your device doesn’t mean you should let your guard down. If you have a brand new smartphone, don’t be flashy with it. Don’t leave your valuables unattended. Common sense still applies.