Possible to "Brick" a Laptop or Tablet?

Was driving through the sketchier end of town yesterday, and I drove past a guy selling laptops and tablets on a picnic table. Obviously, I didn’t buy anything from him and won’t be buying anything from him. But if iPhones and satellite radio devices can be rendered useless with a phone call (by reporting them stolen), can laptops and tablets also be rendered useless remotely?

Yes, though for a PC, you need to install special software that will do it. The stuff I’ve seen will wipe the hard drive as soon as the computer is connected to the Internet.

But that’s usually only installed in high security and corporate environments. A home computer won’t have it installed. Also, I think you can still reformat the hard drive and use the computer; the purpose of the software is to protect data.

Apple won’t disable anything you report stolen, I know that from family experience. I’m not sure any company does that. I used to work tech support, and while it was rare, we would get calls from people claiming that their ex-spouse or mortal enemy had stolen their computer and demanding we disable it. Not going to happen. (If I could look back in our records and see that Billy Bob called in with an issue with it six months ago, and it is registered in his name, and you’re claiming he stole it last week and demanding we disable it… Well, doesn’t take a lot of mental work to figure out that you’re just trying to fuck over Billy Bob.)

Besides the fact that we had no way to brick someone’s device.

If you’ve got the Find My i(whatever) on an Apple product, you can remote wipe it, but all that does is remove your stuff. I suppose if you’ve got sensitive stuff on it, that will help, but as I only have some email addresses, a couple hundred songs, a few apps and a movie or two on my iPad, I’m not doing much.

The phone companies can definitely pull a device off your account if you report it stolen. Doesn’t brick it, but they can’t use it unless they activate it on another account.

One of the scandals is that in the US, cell phone companies will not block phones that are reported stolen. Something that happens in other countries. There are plans afoot to implement such a scheme but the US carriers are dragging their feet. (Possibly due to wanting the income from allowing the phone to be re-used.) Slashdot has articles covering this.

Really bricking a laptop is doable but uncommon. Merely wiping the HD doesn’t brick a laptop. You can reinstall an OS and use it.

What you do is have a BIOS password on the laptop. On each bootup, you enter the password. Without it, the laptop is useless. Note that this is a hardware thing, not a software thing (which can be easily circumvented). Getting around a modern BIOS password requires a replacment chip and soldering skills. (Or human engineering the mope at customer support.) But if you don’t set up the password, it won’t help.

HDs can be encrypted and password protected as well. No ordinary person can get around this.

There are hidden tracking programs that can be installed on laptops (some by default). So if the laptop ever gets used on a network again (likely, of course), then it can be tracked to an local network. The tracking software is carefully hidden from view using ordinary software. A decent computer geek can find and wipe the tracking software, but the skeevy guy on the corner won’t know or care about it.

If you are buying a second hand laptop, some things to check: Does it boot into the OS? Can you check the SN to see if it’s reported stolen to the manufacturer?

I have no cites, but are you sure that BIOS passwords are that secure? I’ve read that “backdoor” passwords are available (and not that hard to track down) for most if not all laptops.


The article is from April 2012. The six-month deadline is October. AT&T cell phone blocking service has already started.

iPhones, iPads, and some Macs can be remotely wiped by their owner if stolen, but that doesn’t “brick” them- they are still usable afterwards.

Yeah, I did a check and it does appear that there are scripts available to, e.g., take a hash shown onscreen after entering an invalid password and brute force search for the original. This wouldn’t be a backdoor password per se, but what the manufacturer uses to help legitimate owners recover their passwords. Lots of brands, but not all may have scripts for this.

Interesting (and sad as far as security goes).

As to Apple allowing owners and non-owners to remotely wipe (not brick) their devices, there’s this recent tale.

Remotely? No. If you have the computer in your possession? Sure–you just botch a firmware update.

As one of the guys who gets asked to remove a BIOS password about 20 times a year…its rarely that simple, desktop machines have a jumper you move and that will clear a bios password laptops do not. some models allow you to do the same thing by shorting a wire across two specific spots on the motherboard but that can require disassembly.

Best bet is call the manufacturer, they will charge you for this most of the time because this will never be a warranty issue. It does not just do it all by itself.