Review: Track your stolen laptop for free with Prey

Prey's open-source notebook-tracking service involves a few compromises

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.

Configuring the Prey software

Configuring the Prey software (Windows version on left, Linux version on right).

Click to view larger image.
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