Prey: A Powerful Recovery Tool For Your Missing Laptop

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?


Summary

A free, open-source recovery application for tracking and monitoring a lost or stolen laptop. It works as advertised and it's free, what's not to love?

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  • Alexei

    It is REALLY important to not forget those topics:
    - LittleSnitch (give permission). Otherwise it won’t work.
    - Firmware (BIOS) block (so people can’t format the drive).
    - Create a GUEST account so the thief can login and you can gather pictures, screenshots, pages he visit, IP address, etc.

  • Danny Tam

    I’m having some real issues adding hardware to my control panel for Prey. I also can’t find the app in the App Store for iPhone. Anybody else having similar issues?

    Look to be rather promising..

    • FubarGuy

      They said on their Twitter feed earlier today that they re-submitted the app & were waiting on Apple. Looks like they also had some server issues, I’m waiting for the activation email for several hours now. They’ll catch up eventually I hope!

  • Diego

    Prey’s back on track! Small issue, but it got fixed! ;) The iPhone version is still in revision because a new version was sent to the App store.

  • Chris Baer

    Amazing how little people think about the privacy implications here, do you know anything about this company? I looked up their business address and they are based in Hong Kong, pretty sketchy if you ask me. Here we are giving a company outside the US root access to our computer systems and web camera. Remember if you are not paying for the product, you are the product.

    • John Trivers

      Point well taken. The developers have stated explicitly how information is gathered and used within the application and on their servers here in the FAQ section of their site, http://preyproject.com/faq. Additionally, the code for prey is open-source and can be located here, http://github.com/tomas/prey.

      Weighing the risks of sending personal information to online companies and organizations in the support of recovering a missing device will always be a personal one.

      • Sigilist

        Much as I am an advocate of open source, in this case it may not be such a good thing. Imagine the ability to understand how Prey works in static examination in order to USB key a circumvention.

        Yes, it can be done… aside from simply keeping the unit offline until it is scrubbed. Anti-theft software only works with the common, stupid thief.

        That being said, there really is no theft software / service where one isn’t going to give up privacy and have to accept potential invasion of one’s devices / data by the security system itself. If you are one who travels a lot (local or long distance) with your devices, then such tracking may be a viable and even preferred consideration. If not, and if you carry your devices only to home and a permanent workplace, then such software / services aren’t necessary… let alone better than some common sense and conscientious practices.

        Prey seems no better or worse than its competitors, though it is a nice feature that it allows tracking of few devices for free.

        Hmmm… but what’s that old saying about “a free lunch”?

  • http://www.raid-data-recovery-uk.com James Randall

    I would give this recovery software additional points if it can be used in conjunction with my other mobile devices. Monitoring 3 devices is a good number, with most tech savvy people having about 3 devices on them. I would love to be able to monitor and track my laptop and mobile phone. However, the only way it will work is if the thief connects the device to the internet. If he doesn’t the software fails.

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