Anti-theft software aims to protect laptops at Johns Hopkins

Would-be thieves have another reason to think twice before stealing a laptop on Johns Hopkins University campuses.

Students, faculty, and staff now have access to laptop anti-theft software aimed at stemming the rising number of thefts, and at quickly recovering stolen computers. Through a four-year licensing agreement with FrontDoor Software, the Johns Hopkins University Information Security Institute is providing the software for free to the university community. It's available for download to anyone with a Johns Hopkins University–related email address at http://frontdoorsoftware.com/jhu.

"Adding an additional layer of security will always be beneficial," says Ed Skrodzki, executive director of Homewood Campus Safety and Security. So far this year, 17 laptops have been stolen at Homewood, up from nine just two years ago, Skrodzki says.

Laptops and other mobile devices are easy targets, as they are ubi­quitous and can be quickly and easily swiped.

The FrontDoor software, available for Windows and Apple systems, allows a user to lock down the computer and display a custom message to the thief, such as "This laptop is reported stolen." The computer's location can be tracked with Google maps, which could aid in a recovery.

The anti-theft effort is also an awareness campaign, and JHUISI has partnered at Homewood with the Student Government Association and Office of Student Life to spread the word about the software—and about tips for avoiding thefts, such as not leaving laptops unattended.

"As word gets around about how effective this software can be, I'd hope to see more and more students, faculty, and staff using it," Skrodzki says. "This should have a deterrent effect, too. Laptop theft is usually a crime of opportunity, and as thieves learn that Hopkins is not an easy target, they will look elsewhere to commit these crimes."

But no software is perfect, and there are opportunities to improve this tool, says Anton Dahbura, interim executive director of JHUISI. Four master's students in security informatics are working with FrontDoor to improve the software's effectiveness, an arrangement that sweetened the deal to allow the university to provide the product for free.

"We want to make it more difficult for the bad guy to remove the software or defeat it," Dahbura says. "But if the owner wants to remove it, we don't want to make it more difficult for them." The students also want to shore up the software for use on mobile devices that run on Android and Apple's iOS platforms.

Each student in the master's program is responsible for a research project, says Joe Carrigan, senior security engineer at JHUISI, and some students opt to work with companies on existing software. "It's kind of an unusual opportunity. Not a lot of schools can provide this," he says.

A couple of months into the software rollout, it's too early to tell how effective the program will be. University officials are trying to spread the word and are relying on the software's deterrent factor to protect the computers. "I think we can drastically cut down on the number of laptop thefts, and hopefully eliminate them altogether," Dahbura says. "We want to get the message out there to someone who might do it that Hopkins is not a good place to [steal laptops]."

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