How To Protect Your Laptop from Theft (and Catch Thieves!)

By Matthew Braga

We're going to show you how to deter would-be thieves, and help you get your laptop back should it ever be stolen.

As much as we'd like to think of coffee shops and libraries as idyllic places for safe work and study, there's always someone willing to steal your stuff. After all, that elderly woman at the adjacent table may look innocent, but we're not going to take any chances.
Of course, when it comes to laptop security, we'd recommend the obvious — watch your stuff. Five minutes is all it takes to grab a coffee, or head to the washroom, but that's all it takes for a thief to swipe your stuff too. And while physical locks can be a good deterrent in public places, they aren't always possible — or convenient — to set up.

Prey to deter would-be thieves, and help you get your laptop back should it ever be stolen.   

How It Works

Prey uses both hardware and software to keep track of a missing laptop. If you're lucky, it may even help identify the thief responsible. This is because Prey leverages your webcam, wireless network and desktop screenshots to gather as much peripheral information about a missing device as possible — with the hope of identifying who's stolen your laptop, and where it may be located. All of this is done discreetly, unbeknownst to a potential thief, and activated shortly after your laptop is marked missing.

Those concerned about limited system resources needn't worry either; both the Mac and Linux client run outside of memory until your laptop is marked as missing, while the Windows build requires only 2-3 MB of RAM. That's a pretty decent tradeoff for security and piece of mind. As far as configuration goes, you'll be offered two choices during setup — Control Panel and Standalone — and we're going to examine the pros and cons for each.

Taking Control

Choosing Control Panel is considered the easiest way to setup Prey, and allows you to configure settings and report a missing device via the application's website. After setting up an account, you can flag your laptop as missing online, and view what information is sent back in the report. By default, this includes things like IP address, geolocation data (if available), and a webcam photo that might just help you identify the culprit. There's even the option to activate potentially discouraging actions on the remote machine, including an audible alarm, screen lock, or on-screen messages to the supposed culprit. 

That alarm is, in fact, loud. Trust us. And a damn good way to ward of potential thieves. 


Going It Alone

When Prey is run in standalone mode, the client bypasses the online Control Panel entirely, and sends reports to an email account instead. This is useful for a number of reasons — namely, the ability to view reports on a smart phone or mobile device, instead of at your desk, and send more frequent reports than the online interface's ten minute limit. In fact, you can register as many laptops or devices as you wish using Standalone mode, making this an attractive option for those with many machines. However, it changes a few things as far as setup is concerned.

theft.jpg. If my laptop ever goes missing, I simply delete theft.jpg from my server, causing the URL to return a "404 Not Found" and activate Prey. 

Windows users can, by default, find Prey installed to their hard drive's root directory (C:\). On Mac and Linux, all of Prey's files are run from /usr/share/Prey, though you'll likely need to reveal hidden files in Finder using the following Terminal command:   

defaults write AppleShowAllFiles YES

Inside, you'll find various modules with which Prey uses to compile its reports, ranging from webcam data to geolocation settings. Each module has a folder with a configuration file within that can be edited in any basic editor. The webcam module, for example, actually allows us to record brief video clips for each report, something not possible via the Control Panel interface. You can even change the message contents of the on-screen alert, with the hope that light-hearted humor will cause the thief to have a change of heart. 
Before someone points out my lack of possessive apostrophe, I should note its inclusion would have broken the configuration file. Sometimes, grammar sacrifices must be made. 

 sudo chmod +x /usr/share/prey/modules/alert/run     

Windows users simply need to create a file called "activate" in the root folder of each module, and set a value of "1". To test everything out, flag your device as missing by removing the URL path that Prey has been set to watch, and check your inbox for new reports (with great candid shots like this, we hope). A bit of trial and error is all it takes to get everything set up nicely, and if all goes well, you'll have a lightweight, anti-theft setup that should hopefully keep all but the most dedicated of thieves at bay. 
Prey is by no means the only piece of anti-theft software out there, but it's definitely one of the most robust. Do you bother to secure your laptop (or desktop, even) with software like this? What are methods have you used to discourage would-be thieves? Be sure to let us know below!