UK firm develops 'exploding dye pack' laptop

An anti-theft technology for laptops that has been compared to the exploding dye packs used to foil bank robberies has been developed by a British company.

Sheffield company Virtuity has been piloting BackStopp, an integrated technology option for laptops that uses wireless communication to locate a lost or stolen unit and render it useless.

If a BackStopp-equipped laptop goes missing, the owner can report it to a control centre, which will send a 'self destruct' message blocking further access or destroying data. If the laptop is switched off when the order is sent, it will be received and executed as soon as the device is turned on again.

"When somebody has lost their mobile phone or credit cards, one of the first things they do is ring up their phone or bank operator," said Dean Bates, chief technical officer of Virtuity.

"They either stop the device working, or cancel their credit cards. BackStopp works in a similar way with a laptop. When it goes missing then you can go on to the BackStopp website and make sure the data doesn't fall into the wrong hands," he said.

Virtuity have been working on the idea for around a year, spurred by a number of high profile data loss cases, such as a laptop containing customer details being stolen from the Nationwide Building Society.

"When we started this project, we were looking to aim it at financial organisations and the public sector, due to the high profile [data loss] incidents," said Bates. "However, once we started testing it, the market seemed to open up a lot more."

"Take a design agency as an example. If it is doing a promotion for a car manufacturer and one of its laptops gets lost, someone could take the data, such as pictures and video, and post them on Flickr and Youtube. They could lose the contract and it would have a big impact on the client."

There are different types of wireless communication which BackStopp works with, including Ethernet and Wi-Fi, as well as GSM cellular data. There is usually no extra hardware required, just a software installation.

One aspect of BackStopp that should worry thieves is the ability to make the laptop take photos as soon as it is switched on. "We use the integrated webcam found on many modern laptops," said Bates.

"We activate the camera when [the laptop] is turned on in 'stolen mode' and we take pictures of [hopefully] the culprit who stole the laptop. We can then provide a report with a picture of the culprit and details of their location."