[ISN] Computer project recovers stolen laptop, affirms couple's love

From: InfoSec News (alerts@private)
Date: Thu Feb 15 2007 - 22:28:11 PST


By Rachel Konrad
February 14, 2007

SAN FRANCISCO -- Signals from aliens, an unskilled rapper and a 
Swedish-American computer geek converged in an unusual, nerdy ode to a 
couple's love for each other.

The story began with a project by the Space Sciences Laboratory at the 
University of California, Berkeley, which has signed up more than 1 
million volunteers worldwide in a search for extraterrestrial 
intelligence since 1999. The SETI@home project uses volunteers' 
computers when they go into screen-saver mode to crunch data in search 
of possible evidence of radio transmissions from space using data from 
the Arecibo radio telescope.

James Melin, a software programmer for a county government agency in 
Minnesota, volunteers with the project and runs SETI@home on his seven 
home computers, which periodically communicate over the Internet with 
University of California servers. Whenever communication takes place, 
servers record the remote computer's Internet Protocol address and file 
it in a database that people running the software can view.

An IP address a set of numbers separated by periods functions like a 
street address or a phone number to provide an identity for any computer 
connected to the Internet.

Several years ago, Melin installed SETI@home on his wife's laptop, which 
was stolen from the couple's Minneapolis home on Jan. 1.

Annoyed at the break-in and alarmed that someone could delete the 
screenplays and novels that his wife, Melinda Kimberly, was writing 
Melin monitored the SETI@home database to see if the stolen laptop would 
talk to the Berkeley servers. The laptop checked in three times within a 
week, and Melin sent the IP addresses to the Minneapolis Police 

Officers subpoenaed Quest Communications, Melin's Internet service 
provider, to determine the address where the stolen laptop logged onto 
the Internet. Within days, officers seized the computer and returned it 
to the rightful owners.

The computer contained Kimberly's writings, and thieves didn't appear to 
have broken into her e-mail or other personal folders or programs.

But the returned computer contained 20 tracks of rap music with 
unintelligible lyrics, possibly from the person who stole the computer 
or bought it on the black market.

It's really, really horrid rap, said Melin, 43. It makes Ludacris look 
like Pavarotti.

Kimberly, 31, said the incident reaffirmed her love for Melin. They met 
when she was only 15 years old, while she was dressed as a medieval 
wench and he was a Scots highlander at a Renaissance Faire.

The native Minnesotans bonded over their Scandinavian roots and remained 
friends for a couple years, interacting in their medieval garb at summer 
festivals. They began dating when she was 17 and got married just shy of 
her 20th birthday.

Since Kimberly got laid off last year, the couple has been living apart. 
Kimberly moved to Oceanside to work on her writing, and her husband 
plans to join her after he's vested in his pension.

I always knew that a geek would make a great husband, Kimberly said 
Wednesday. He always backed up all my data, but this topped it all. It 
became like Mission Impossible for him, looking for hard evidence for 
the cops to use. ... He's a genius my hero.

Dave Anderson, a research scientist at University of California, 
Berkeley, and director of SETI@home, said the case appears to be the 
first successful recovery of a stolen computer through SETI@home, one of 
the world's best known distributed computing projects.

Unless a computer-savvy thief uninstalls nearly every piece of software 
before connecting to the Internet, he said, SETI@home would track the 
machine and the thief would likely never know it.

I have some advice for thieves: Don't connect to the network, Anderson 

Copyright 2007 Union-Tribune Publishing Co.

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