Normally a stolen laptop is gone forever, but every now and again one turns up unexpectedly in curious circumstances.

The University of California was the unfortunate victim of a laptop theft in March, with the thief making off with a machine containing the personal information including social security numbers) of nearly 100,000 students.

Now, one police investigation later, the university has its laptop back . It turns out that it was sold to a man in San Francisco who then auctioned it via the Internet to another man in South Carolina.

By this point, it had been reformatted with a new OS, leaving just enough traces of its previous existence for an FBI lab to determine that it was the machine in question. They weren’t, however, able to tell whether the sensitive data had been accessed though it looks as if the theft was purely to steal the laptop itself, not the information it contained. Lucky them.

What is odd is that nobody has explained how the police tracked the laptop in the first place. It is implied that it wasn’t through the thieves or purchasers of the PC in person, so how did they achieve this recovery feat?

Perhaps the university was using some form of security tracking service, and that this alerted them when it was connected to the Internet. This wouldn’t explain why it took them 10 weeks to trace the laptop. Again, perhaps the purchaser was the first person to connect it to the Internet. It is strange that they won’t say.

It is still madness that important data can sit on something as stealable and portable as a laptop. But not for much longer, we predict.