Track your stolen laptop for free with Prey

If you're not worried about this when you're out in public with your laptop, you should be: What if someone steals your computer -- and its precious data that comprises your digital personal and work life?

That's where tracking services such as LoJack for Laptops and GadgetTrak come in. You install a program on your notebook, and if it's stolen, these services can help track down and try to recover your computer -- or at least disable it so the thief cannot access the contents of the hard drive. Most of these services require a monthly or annual subscription fee, ranging from $20 to $60 a year.

For the budget conscious, there are in fact a few free, open-source options for tracking a stolen notebook. Aside from the price tag, one reason you might want to use an open-source tracker over a commercial product is that you can examine the code to ensure it isn't doing anything shady with your private data, and compile it yourself.

A matter of trust

The big question, though, is the reliability and long-term stability of these free-to-use services. With a well-established company, you can feel pretty sure it will be around in two years if your laptop is stolen. But can you have the same confidence in a free alternative?

About a year ago, for instance, there were a lot of complaints that the University of Washington's free laptop-tracking service, called Adeona, wasn't working properly. As of this writing, the Adeona Web site actually advises people against downloading and using it. (A warning on the site says the network that the Adeona program uses to track notebooks is currently being tested.)

Then there's The LaptopLock, which apparently hasn't been updated since February 2007. You can still download the program and install it, and it appears to function. Yet is its tracking network being maintained? Is anybody minding the store? (I tried to contact the developers of The LaptopLock, but had not heard back from anyone by deadline.)

That leaves two free, open-source notebook tracking services standing: Prey and Pombo. Since Pombo works only with Linux, I'm focusing this review on Prey -- which supports Windows, Mac OS X and Linux -- as being useful to a much wider audience. Fortunately, not only does Prey look good and work well, it's in steady development by an active community that's improving and adding features to it.

On the downside, Prey doesn't have the resources to work with police to recover your laptop, as many paid services do. What's more, it provides no way to physically delete files from the stolen machine, and the tracking software can be removed by savvy thieves.

How Prey works, and a major weakness

Currently in version 0.3.3, the Prey tracking software runs in the background processes of your notebook. It "wakes" at a specified interval, goes online (if your laptop isn't already connected to the Internet, Prey tries to connect to the nearest open Wi-Fi access point) and checks in with a specified Web address to see what you have ordered it to do. If said address doesn't issue a command to the laptop (such as telling your computer that it is considered stolen), the Prey software returns to sleep and will wake up again at the next time interval.

If your laptop is stolen, you can use another computer to sign in to the Prey Web site, mark the laptop as missing, and follow the whereabouts of your purloined system through a control panel -- assuming the thief takes your notebook online or the software manages to connect to a Wi-Fi access point.

Be aware that the Achilles' heel of Prey -- and many other notebook tracking services, whether free or paid -- is that the tracking program itself can be stopped, removed or deleted if found by a tech-savvy thief. And, of course, the program will be useless if the thief simply reformats your laptop's hard drive.

This can be somewhat thwarted by going into your notebook's BIOS settings and disabling the option for the computer to boot from a USB device or network connection, and locking down access to the BIOS with a password. (I say "somewhat," because the thief could still physically remove the hard drive from your notebook, and access its contents by connecting it to another computer.)

Some of the paid notebook tracking programs are difficult to render inoperable because they are not written to your notebook's hard drive: LoJack for Laptops' software resides in the BIOS of your notebook, for example. Prey doesn't do this.

Control your stolen laptop through the Web

Interacting with your stolen notebook works one of two ways in Prey: In standalone mode, you get messages from your notebook by e-mail, but setting up remote-control operations can be cumbersome. Most people will want to use the service the second way, via a Web control panel on the Prey site. It's easier to set up than standalone mode, and makes it simpler to track and remotely control your notebook. This review focuses on the second way.

The control panel features toggle settings that allow you to set up and run individual remote operations. This is all presented within a dead-simple, user-friendly interface.

Through this panel, you can flag your notebook as missing. Then, if your notebook manages to "phone home," you can tell it to send you a report detailing the IP address it's connected to, command it to take a screenshot of the desktop, and, if your notebook has a built-in Webcam, take a snapshot to capture the image of the person using the computer. You can even send an instant message to the suspect to tell him you're watching him.

Prey works as advertised

I installed the Windows version of Prey's tracking software on an old Dell Inspiron 1300 laptop running Windows XP Home and on the Linux version on an Asus Eee PC 1005HA netbook running the Jolicloud Linux OS. Installation was a snap for both versions.

I quickly signed up for a free user account and registered my laptop and netbook on the Prey site. The site gave me an "API key" (a unique series of numbers and letters assigned to each user account) as well as two unique "device keys" -- one each for the laptop and the netbook.

From this point on, I decided to test Prey with the Eee PC netbook since it has a built-in Webcam, handy for snagging photos of the thief. I entered my API key and the netbook's device key into the tracking software running on the netbook, then set the software's run interval (the number of minutes that pass before it wakes and tries to connect to the Internet) to 2 minutes. After this, there was nothing more I needed to do to configure the software.

All the major functions worked well when I tested them. I left the Eee, connected to the Internet and with the Prey program running, in my office. Then I took my other laptop with me to a coffeehouse, connected to the establishment's Wi-Fi, logged onto my account at the Prey Web site, and marked the Eee back in the office as missing.

Within 2 minutes, I received a report that correctly listed the IP address my Eee was connected to, the Eee's MAC address, a screenshot of the Eee's desktop, and a Webcam shot of my unoccupied office chair. So far, so good.

Then I realized that had my netbook really been stolen, there wasn't much I could actually DO from that point. Prey doesn't let you remotely erase your personal files as the Premium Edition of LoJack for Laptops does.

You have to contact the police

So once you have the information about the location of your laptop (or, as in my case, netbook) and a mug shot of the probable thief, what next? It's up to you to contact the authorities and convince them to take action based on this evidence. As you might predict, this could be difficult if you're out of your home jurisdiction -- if, for instance, your notebook has been taken to another city, state or country, or if you lost it when you were traveling.

This is where a free service like Prey falls short. Its developers can't do the job of contacting the relevant authorities for you. Some paid services like LoJack for Laptops, on the other hand, have a support staff on call to do their best to get your notebook back with the authorities' help. That personal attention is what you're buying when you subscribe to certain paid tracking services.

With Prey, and any other free service, all you can really do is stalk your notebook from afar. (Looking up the suspect and personally confronting him is, of course, not advised.) Prey's developers even advise you to be careful about sending messages to the thief, because constant harassment could lead to the person finding and disabling the Prey tracking program.

(And, yes, let's be up front here: Prey can be used for nefarious purposes. One could install it on another person's notebook without their knowledge or consent and track them. We strongly advise against this. But there can also be legitimate surveillance purposes for Prey, such as using it with your notebook's Webcam to keep an eye on your home or office while you're away.)

Can a free notebook tracker sustain growth in user base?

Since the software is given away for free and you are not charged for using its tracking service, a question arises as to how Prey can continue to operate over time, and how it will be able to handle growth in the number of users who rely on it. All the money this project receives presently comes from donations by its users.

Prey creator Tomás Pollak, responding in an e-mail, admitted that maintaining the scalability of Prey's tracking network has been a big challenge for him and his team, especially as more people sign up and use it. "We're serving approximately 10 million requests a day coming from Prey clients. The Web service is being constantly hit by different devices all over the world, minute by minute. Thankfully, I've had some experience building large Web sites, so we've managed to handle the load pretty well."

The team is looking to sell subscription plans to businesses. Pollak explained, "We've gotten a ton of requests from big organizations who want to use Prey on their whole set of machines, so we decided to offer them subscription-based plans."

Currently, a single user account on Prey can support up to three devices. Under Pollak's proposed business plan, you would have to pay a monthly fee to add more devices; pricing has yet to be determined. "We're still working on this and hopefully we're releasing it in the following weeks," said Pollak.

More features, smartphone support, and final thoughts

Feature for feature, the current version of Prey matches what the $25-per-year GadgetTrak offers. So it's already on par with some paid tracking products.

Plans for the next version of Prey include providing Wi-Fi geolocation information for your notebook, an alarm system that will allow you to remotely trigger a loud siren, and the ability to erase sensitive data -- like passwords stored in a Web browser -- and personal files. This new version is being tested, but no release date has been set. Pollak said the team will also roll out a version for smartphones and other mobile handhelds, although he didn't state when this would happen other than "soon."

Yet despite all these coming features, the ultimate weakness with Prey -- and, it should be emphasized, any free tracking program -- is that it's up to you to contact the proper authorities to try to recover your stolen notebook. A reliable, full-featured paid tracking service should have an on-call staff who have the expertise and know-how to do this for you.

So is using Prey better than using nothing at all? Of course. It's the best free notebook tracker, and hopefully Pollak and his team can keep their service running and offered gratis to individuals.

Still, it wouldn't hurt to also buy and use a security cable to add another layer of anti-theft protection for your notebook.

Howard Wen is a frequent contributor to Computerworld.

This story, "Track your stolen laptop for free with Prey" was originally published by Computerworld.

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