Prey: A Powerful Recovery Tool For Your Missing Laptop

Posted by | January 31, 2012 | Apps | No Comments

Our laptops are valuable devices. They connect us. Inform and entertain us. And yes, sometimes distract us. Dealing with a lost or stolen laptop is not typically a thought we ponder in our busy lives. The good news, there are some powerful tools out there to assist us in the recovery of a missing laptop. The better news, today we’ll take a look at Prey – a free, open-source laptop recovery system that you can begin using immediately.

The developers at preyproject.com make the claim that Prey just works. Let’s take a look at how Prey gets the job done.

Like other applications, installing Prey is a fairly straightforward and familiar process. However unlike most applications, Prey leaves virtually no trace on your computer. After the installation, there is nothing to launch or configure. It idles quietly in the background, unnoticeable even in the activity monitor. As described on the website’s FAQ, Prey uses no system memory until it is activated. So, how does it work?

Installing Prey is simple and easy

Installing Prey is simple and easy

Using Prey requires pairing one’s device with a free, online account. All of the settings for configuring, activating and monitoring Prey’s services are accessed through a browser interface. In practice, this makes the most sense as alerting Prey to a missing laptop and subsequently tracking and monitoring it can easily be done from another internet-connected device.

The Web Interface:

The free Prey account allows for monitoring up to three devices. From within the user’s control panel, the various security and alert settings for each device can be toggled on or off to suit one’s needs.

Prey can monitor up to 3 devices

Prey can monitor up to 3 devices

When a user reports a device as missing, Prey’s services spring to action. However, for the reporting and monitoring system to work, the missing device must be connected to the internet. Even a brief connection will allow for valuable information to be sent from the device back to the user’s control panel.

Prey monitors your missing device

Prey monitors your missing device

The Monitoring Tools:

The variety and scope of Prey’s monitoring tools are impressive. Not only can it geo-locate the device by extracting data from its wifi location, Prey will snap images from the webcam (as well as screenshots), identify local network information, report on modified files and list running programs. Email alerts will notify the user when a report has been generated and give near real-time status updates as long as the device remains connected to the internet. Should the device be disconnected from the internet and reconnected elsewhere, Prey will resume its monitoring and reporting activity. Prey also provides several security and lockdown features that can prevent access to the device or alert a potential thief (or passerby) that monitoring is occurring.

Prey's control panel

Prey's control panel

Prey reports the location of your missing device

Prey reports the location of your missing device

Real World Use?

There are many recovery stories that have been shared on the project’s website praising the merits of Prey. But can’t a would-be thief simply remove or disable Prey? According to the developers, Prey can only be removed with the administrator password. Without this piece of information, only the more technically sophisticated thief would consider how to begin accessing your computer and crippling Prey’s services.

I have been using Prey on a Macbook Pro for slightly over a year. Fortunately I’ve never had need to activate Prey’s services. Yet because I’m relying on Prey as my first “go to” recovery tool, I do periodically put it through its paces by reporting my laptop as missing. The results? In six test runs over the course of a year, Prey has not failed once. Each time it has perfectly performed its task, generating full-detailed reports and providing on-time status updates.

Caught myself in the act

Caught myself in the act

The free version offered by Prey is rock solid and will provide excellent recovery options. There are pro features that some may find useful and worth the additional cost. Whereas the free service provides up to 10 individual reports for missing devices (older ones get deleted as new ones are generated)), the pro service provides for up to 100 reports. Other pro features include auto-updates to the application and on-demand reporting. Check out the full list here.

Some Things to Consider:

  • Laptops running an application like Little Snitch will need to give Prey permission to phone home.
  • Of course, if someone reformats or replaces the hard drive, Prey will not perform its function.
  • Password protect your user account and encrypt your data. For an added layer of security, consider using firmware password protection.
  • Keep the Guest User Safari account in OS X 10.7.2 enabled and provide some contact information on your login screen. This may “lure” your potential thief or laptop rescuer into logging in and activating a number of Prey’s features.
  • Any updates to the Prey application will need to be manually installed (unless you’re paying for Prey’s pro features).
  • And for goodness sake, don’t leave your laptop sitting unattended at the coffee shop while using the bathroom!

The Verdict:

There are similar type recovery services on the market. The recent Find My Mac feature introduced with Apple’s iCloud service might be one to consider, though many report it has its own quirks and security flaws. Prey has a proven track-record. It has been independently reviewed, tested and recommended by users and publications worldwide. Being a cross-platform application, Prey will work with Mac, iOS, Android, Linux and Windows devices. Accessing and monitoring various devices from a single-user interface is a major asset, particularly in a panicked moment when one or more of these devices goes missing. For the no-cost added layer of protection and peace of mind offered by this little application, Prey is a winner.

Are you using anti-theft or recovery protection for your laptop?

What success story do you to have share?