Review: Track your stolen laptop for free with Prey

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

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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."

Sending an alert to the thief

Sending an alert to the thief.

Click to view larger image.

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.

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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