Prey is an open-source notebook tracking service which supports Windows, Mac OS X and Linux. Not only does Prey look good and work well, it's in steady development by an active community.
Prey doesn't have the resources to work with police to recover your laptop, and provides no way to physically delete files from a stolen machine.
Version 0.3.3 runs in the background of your notebook, and "wakes" at specified intervals to go 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 address to see what you have ordered it to do. If said address has no commands for your laptop, the software returns to sleep until the next time interval.
If your laptop is stolen, you can notify the Prey site, mark it as missing, and follow its whereabouts through a control panel, if the thief takes your notebook online or the software finds an access point.
Of course the tracking program can be stopped, removed or deleted if found by a tech-savvy thief. And Prey will be useless if the thief reformats the hard drive.
Some of the commercial tracking programs are harder to remove, such as LoJack for Laptops, which resides in BIOS.
In standalone mode, you get messages from your notebook by email, but setting up can be cumbersome. Most people will want to use the second service, via a panel on the Prey site. It's easier to set up than standalone, and makes it simpler to track and control your notebook.
The web panel features allows you to set up and run individual operations, from a simple, user-friendly interface.
After flagging your notebook as missing, if your notebook manages to "phone home", you can retrieve a report detailing its IP address, command it to take a desktop screengrab, and even take a webcam snapshot to photograph whoever's using it. Or send an instant message to tell them you're watching him.
We tried the Windows version on a Dell Inspiron 1300 laptop running Windows XP Home, and on an Asus Eee PC 1005HA netbook running Jolicloud Linux. Installation was easy for both.
We quickly signed up for a free account and registered our laptops on the Prey site. The site gave us an "API key" (a unique series of numbers and letters assigned to each user account) as well as unique "device keys" for each.
All the major functions worked well. Within two minutes of marking the netbook as missing, we received a report that correctly listed its IP and MAC address, a screenshot of the Eee's desktop, and a webcam shot of our unoccupied office chair.
Armed with information about your laptop's location and a mugshot of the probable thief, it's up to you to contact the authorities and convince them to take action.
This is where a free service like Prey falls short. Its developers won't contact the relevant authorities for you, unlike LoJack for Laptops, whose support staff do their best to get your notebook back. That personal attention is what you're sunscription pays for.
Prey's developers even advise you to be careful about sending messages to the thief, as this could result in the disabling of the program.
Since the software is free and you're not charged for using its 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. The project is currently sustained from user donations.
A single user account can support up to three devices, and the developer plans a subscription service, along with Wi-Fi geolocation, a remotely triggered loud siren, and the ability to wipe sensitive data.
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