Revealed: Microsoft’s high-tech plan to stop laptop thieves

Microsoft is looking into new ways to guard laptops against theft, with plans to allow the remote wiping or disabling of a stolen notebook, at least according to a new patent that has been uncovered.

We are, of course, used to this sort of technology with our smartphones these days, but a patent spotted by MS Power User shows that Microsoft is mulling over extending this type of anti-theft coverage to notebooks, or rather more specifically its ‘always connected’ laptops powered by Qualcomm’s Snapdragon chips.

Because these notebooks – which we heard a lot more about at Computex – use Snapdragon SoCs (System-on-a-Chip), they have LTE mobile data built-in, hence the always connected moniker, and the possibility of allowing for a remote signal to be sent to disable the device, no matter where it is, or what has been done to it (at least theoretically).

According to the patent, the disable command would be actionable even if the stolen machine has had its SIM card removed, or cellular connectivity has been switched off. That would obviously be necessary to stop the thief from easily circumventing disablement defenses.

In the patent, Microsoft states: “[Even] if the device is not capable of general use of the cellular network (e.g., due to a physical authentication module, such as a subscriber identity module, being absent and/or due to a software restriction on cellular network access), disablement communications are still permitted across the cellular network.

“Thus, efforts by an unauthorized possessor of the device to prevent disablement by removing the physical authentication module are thwarted. Likewise, turning the cellular service off using software settings at the device also does not prevent the device from being disabled via cellular network communication.”

Always protected?

So, this could be another major security boon for Microsoft’s Snapdragon-powered always-connected notebooks, doubling up on the fact that the incorporation of LTE mobile broadband also avoids the need to use potentially insecure public Wi-Fi hotspots when out and about.

But on the other hand, it does raise potential privacy issues in terms of the laptops being open to tracking no matter what precautions the user might take to try and shake off those chains. In other words, in the same way that this avenue of remote access can’t be disabled by a thief, it can’t be disabled by the laptop owner either.

And naturally, this news has already caused some concern and chatter online about the potential of hackers abusing the system to maliciously wipe a device.

At this point, we have to throw in the usual caveat that this is just a patent, and so it’s potentially something which will never see the light of day. However, it’s certainly an interesting avenue which Microsoft is exploring, and the potential benefits are likely to outweigh any downsides from our perspective.

Of course, there are anti-theft systems already out there for laptops, such as LoJack software which provides a third-party location tracking and theft recovery system, and is used on some laptops from vendors such as Dell.

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Darren is a freelancer writing news and features for TechRadar (and occasionally T3) across a broad range of computing topics including CPUs, GPUs, various other hardware, VPNs, antivirus and more. He has written about tech for the best part of three decades, and writes books in his spare time (his debut novel - 'I Know What You Did Last Supper' - was published by Hachette UK in 2013).