Data destruction takes shame out of lost laptops

Backstopp software from Virtuity destroys data on lost or stolen laptops and can take a photo of the thief and transmit it back to help with identification.

A Sheffield-based company has developed a system it says could destroy data held on a lost or stolen laptop, and thus prevent information falling into the wrong hands.

The Backstopp product from technology provider Virtuity uses a variety of methods to tell whether a laptop has been moved from its rightful place. It can then block access to sensitive information, delete files, and in some cases, even photograph the illicit user.

Dean Bates, chief technology officer for Virtuity, said the product is based on technology developed originally for the logistics industry where stolen lorries can be disabled remotely.

If the machine has a fast Internet connection, it may be able to complete the deletion even before the machine has completed booting up
Dean Bates
The idea is well-timed coming in the wake of the highly-publicised laptop loss at Nationwide, and more recently a Royal Navy machine holding full details of applicants to the armed forces.

Using the system, anyone who loses their laptop would either log into a control centre website or call a hot line to register the loss. The next time the machine is switched on, it would connect to the centre using WiFi or GSM and on discovering it has been lost, takes action to either block access to files or delete them to US military standards to avoid anyone being able to retrieve the data.

Bates emphasized that the system was designed to make the connection and delete files without the knowledge of any thief. "We have integrated into the boot-up process, so if the machine has a fast Internet connection, it may be able to complete the deletion even before the machine has completed booting up and the thief has logged on successfully," he said. "And if the machine is equipped with a webcam, it can also take pictures of the culprit and transmit them back to help with identification."

The system can also operate in offices equipped to pick up signals from RFID tags. Bates said this would allow the system to set off an alert even if a laptop was just moved from a desk and out of its designated zone. "The RFID tag would work even if the laptop was switched off," he said. "Companies could choose to limit the movement of a machine to one desk, one floor or to a building."

Customers can specify which files they would like to have destroyed in case of loss. Bates said that by default the system deletes cookies from browsers, and major file formats like Microsoft Office, Adobe Acrobat and Lotus Notes.

He said the cost of the product would be set around £10 per user per month. Virtuity is in talks with several distributors and third-parties, said Bates, but has not yet signed any to handle the product. Virtuity offers the central control system at, but Bates said that business partners were being sought who could also offer a 24-hour hotline for people to call.

Laptop users certainly appear to need such a service – in London at least. In 2005, nearly 5,000 laptops were left in the back of London taxis (along with 5,800 PDAs and 63,000 mobile phones. And Heathrow airport also reported auctioning off 730 laptops that had been left there and not subsequently claimed. The Ministry of Defence also admitted last month that 69 of its laptops had gone missing in the last year.

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