Can you track a hard drive? 9 ways to make a hard drive more secure

Hopefully, you’re not looking at an empty space where your hard drive once was while you search for this question…

Hard drives aren’t manufactured with any kind of tracking function. However, there are a number of ways you can make a hard drive trackable.

In this article, we will explore how to set up a hard drive to make it “traceable” and other ways to make it more secure…

Why cant you track a hard drive?

Hard drives have no hardware function that serves the purpose of tracking. Tracking is not as simple as it sounds and certainly isn’t as easy as they make it look in the movies. Firstly tracking requires signals to be sent and received, this could be GPS, Wifi, Bluetooth or any other connection but all of these things require three things, a transponder, a receiver and power. That means the only time your hard drive would be able to send and receive signals is when it is connected to a computer. Perhaps a battery could do it but it would have to last long enough to get a signal out and be strong enough to operate enough of the drive to share information.

Ok so let’s say it is stolen and plugged in, then it needs to figure out its location, it could pick up the nearest wifi signals (if it had a wifi receiver built-in, which it doesn’t) or maybe it has some software that asks the computer for this information, this would require an unwritable partition that has an executable program that runs on startup and somehow is allowed through the firewall and isn’t detected as a virus or malware and works on all operating systems… then it has to find the information and then it has to send that information out, again going through a firewall and malware detection…

This is theoretically possible but if hard drive manufacturers actually implemented this then operating systems would have to create back doors for hard drives to communicate to so that they could share sensitive information about your location and also create an open link direct to the hard drive. This back door could and would be easily exploited by malware or hackers or anyone else that might want to look around your computer and the potential benefits of having a trackable drive would be completely outweighed by the pitfalls of this function.

How to track a stolen hard drive?

As we have said, hard drives have no GPS capability and are unable to broadcast their location. Even when plugged into a computer they do little to identify themselves and once formatted and renamed they cannot be recognized by any other means than their serial number. I don’t know about you but I don’t have a record of serial numbers for my devices.

So you can’t track a hard drive in the traditional sense, what can you do?

I have heard examples of people who had their external drives stolen then found them on craigslist and bought them back, found that they had been formatted and then recovered the data. This is unlikely but worth a check.

If you have the serial number you can report the theft and add it to the police database, if they recover the hard drive along the way they will cross-reference the serial number and be able to reconnect you with your device, provided it hasn’t been used and now contains a ton of evidence.

The only other things I can think of are a bit vengeful and I don’t recommend them because although losing a hard drive can be devastating it is not the end of the world. Things will get back to normal quicker than you realise.

If you do find yourself in this situation the only appropriate thing to do is to contact the police and hope for the best but unless you have any evidence to give them, it probably won’t be high on the list of priorities. And even then, it’s not a high priority crime. Unless of course, you stored your 10-year-old crypto wallet on there!

9 ways to make my hard drive traceable and secure.

So how can you make a hard drive trackable? There are ways to do this, however, they require some planning and also are dependent on what precautions the would-be robber might take to counteract them. Let’s hope your robber hasn’t read this article. Here are 9 ways to make it traceable and to make sure that your data is secure from your would-be robbers.

1. Tracking device

Depending on your hard drive you may find that you have enough room inside the case to insert a tracking device like the Tile. These little trackers connect to Bluetooth devices and any other devices registered on the tile network. This means that should your drive get stolen it might well ping its location to your account revealing the location of your drive. A friend of mine had one in his wallet and eventually, his tile pinged him from a police station in the next city.

This will only work on an external hard drive with enough room inside the casing and finding one that will do it might be a challenge so I would recommend that instead, you put the tile inside your backpack or laptop bag/sleeve. This way if your bag is stolen along with your hard drive you have a window of time before the tile is discovered and discarded to try and track it.

2. Encrypt your drive.

There are several tools to do this and several ways of doing it. Though this doesn’t make the hard drive trackable, it does ensure the files are secure and it is the most effective way to protect your data should it get stolen. It does this by making files stored in the encrypted section unusable by any software unless they are unencrypted first. Only you have the encryption key so only you can access the files. This is a good solution for a backup drive or a drive that is not in constant use as encryption can take a long time. Some operating systems like POPos for Linux can actually encrypt the boot drive ensuring your entire system is secure.

The highest-rated software out there currently is AxCrypt. And the free subscription to their software enables you to encrypt the files on your hard drive.

3. UV tag

You can use a UV security pen to write a unique ID on your hard drive that is invisible to the naked eye and only visible under direct UV light. This means that if your hard drive is recovered by the police you can identify it as yours. Also, it means if you suspect someone has taken your hard drive as their own you can check without having to steal it back which could look pretty bad if they just have the same hard drive.

UV tags are commonly used to mark all sorts of items and are a good idea for marking just about anything you want to be able to keep secure.

4. Cloud back up.

The big pro for a cloud-based storage solution is that no one can physically steal your hard drive. Cloud-based data storage is the future and will only get better and more cost-effective. Not all cloud-based systems are born equal and it is essential to choose one with strong encryption. This is because although your hard drive cant is stolen your data can.

Different providers offer different solutions at different prices so it is advisable to shop around. Be sure to check the security credentials of any service you use.

There are also different services that can encrypt your cloud data on platforms that don’t have that feature like google drive and dropbox for example making it far more secure. AxCrypt can do this as mentioned in #2.

As is almost always the case the weak spot will probably be your password. Make sure to create strong passwords.

5. Serial number log.

As suggested before, keeping a log of the serial numbers of your devices and then adding the serial number to the police database if it gets stolen is probably the best possible way to get your hard drive back. It doesn’t make it trackable but it does make you as the original owner traceable. If police collect evidence from a suspected or known thief they will cross-check everything to try and prove that this person has stolen property. Be advised that if it is used in evidence you won’t get it back for a while, and if it has new incriminating evidence on there you might not get it back at all. but at that point your data would be lost, however, you would have pretty good evidence to take to your insurance provider!

6. A fail-safe formatting script.

I couldn’t find any software that could do this but did find a couple of people who had written a script with various instructions. In the script should a password-protected hard drive have an incorrect password attempted 10 or more times the hard drive would either completely lockout for 70 days or would begin to completely encrypt the data or delete the data. This could be a useful way to protect the data but might not really have that many real-life applications.

7. File structure precautions.

File management is your friend. Organize your files well and encrypt sensitive ones, which might include tax returns and social security numbers or email backups for example. Being aware of where files are can be a good line of defence and wouldn’t leave a thief with much sensitive info other than those holiday snaps from 2003.

8. 2FA USB key.

It is possible to set up a USB key that unlocks your hard drive allowing a computer to access the files on it. This solution has obvious drawbacks, losing the key for example. But for those who are interested, you could utilize a key like the solo key to set this up on a hard drive. It would take some tinkering and some know-how, probably more than I have but it is in theory possible!

That said all you are doing here is encrypting the drive so it is probably worth referring to tip #2

9. Back up everything.

I add it to every list I write and say it in every article… make a backup and make it secure. It is the only way to safeguard your data from forever being lost. A lost hard drive can have one of two values, it can be worth a lifetime of sentimental value or it can be worth the cost of a new hard drive. If your data is backed up in a secure location either at home or in the cloud then losing or having a hard drive stolen is merely an annoyance. So long as your sensitive information is secure.

Back it up, and keep it secure. This is becoming easier and easier to achieve and I cannot recommend it enough. you only have to lose data once to know how valuable this tip is.

10. Bonus (and somewhat ridiculous) – A Trojan horse.

So this one is theoretical and would not be likely to do anything other than encouraging a robber to wipe your drive completely which is not a bad thing, the less info they have on you the better.

Let us layout a theoretical use case then… You create a folder called ‘private selfies’ for example, in the folder, you add a .exe disguised as a JPEG and hope that the robber opens it. This could run a script that could do whatever your imagination/ingenuity allows… For example, you could write a script that opens a browser window to a predetermined address where you have a site that takes all the information from the drive including the IP address and nearby routers so you could triangulate the drive. (I mean this would require some coding).

If you are at this point in the article I think you can see as well as me that backing up and encrypting your data is a much better solution.

Conclusion.

In reality, making your data secure is going to be down to you. You should ensure your files are well structured and any sensitive information is encrypted. If you have particularly sensitive files consider storing them on an encrypted could-based platform and make sure that everything is backed up so that if someone does steal your hard drive you won’t be without a paddle up a certain creek!