Anti-Theft Software For Macs


There's something we all need to be concerned about in this day and age of Internet Security. It's got nothing to do with the websites you visit, protecting your wireless router with a password, trojans, viruses or applications calling home without your consent. We're talking about theft. And most importantly, what you can do about it.

This year, two of the biggest concerns for Macintosh computer users (and even some of our web design clients) have been viruses and anti-theft protection for computer systems. Due to popular demand (and interest), we covered the Mac malware situation back in March — there are no viruses for Mac OS X in the literal sense of the word (at least not yet) although there are lots of other "nasty" little bits and pieces of software out there which can really harm your Mac if you're not careful.

This post is in response to concerns about protecting computers from theft. If you're an OS X Lion (10.7) user, Apple's Find My iPhone is one alternative but note that it's not a complete solution if you happen to be running Snow Leopard[1]. Remember how we talked about Snow Leopard users getting shafted back in February? Considering the slow adoption rate of OS X Lion (we still use Mac OS X 10.6 ourselves — about 60 to 70% of the rest of the Mac world is still Lion-less depending on who you talk to), then let us Prey.

What is Prey? It's a very lightweight piece of open source software which allows you to keep track of your iMac, MacBook Pro or any other Mac model when it's been stolen or when it has somehow gone "missing". It also works with the iPhone and according to the developer's website, it will soon be available for the iPad (at the time of writing, only the iPhone version was available from the App Store — more about the delay here). Prey also works on Windows so for those of you in mixed environments (Mac and PC), it's the ideal solution since all of your devices are managed from one central location.

[Updated 07.08.13] Prey is now available for the iPad (and yes, of course — the iPhone).

How does Prey work? When the geolocation-aware software is installed on your Mac, a tiny and hard-to-find agent silently awaits for a remote signal (this agent can't be removed without an administrative password). When the device has been marked as "missing", Prey attempts to connect to the nearest "open" Wi-Fi hotspot and follows the device's location, generating reports at specific intervals. Altogether, the whole process allows you to gather information on your device's location and network status and trigger specific actions. In other words, it helps you to find out who stole your laptop and/or your phone[2].

Note that the Prey interface has been updated since this screenshot was taken

Using Prey's web-based Control Panel, you can find out where your device is, who's using it and what they're doing with it. You can also sound an alarm or show a message on-screen and Prey can even take a snapshot of the thief sitting in front of your device using the device's camera (note that the camera function requires a Pro Account — see below).

Is it foolproof? No anti-theft system for computers and handheld devices is foolproof. We're still testing the iOS version on our iPhone and will post an update once we've had enough time to work with it. As far as the Mac OS X version goes, you may wish to consider setting up an open-firmware password on your Mac so that your hard drive can't easily be re-formatted by anyone other than yourself (this is more than likely, something which very few of you have done):

Prey is free for use on up to three devices — ideal for most home users. A Pro Account is also available for those who use more than three devices and require additional features.

Overall, considering the free price tag, the amount of development time which has gone into the software and our experiences with the Mac OS X version, you've got nothing to "lose" if you're looking for an easy and cost-effective way to track your stolen laptop, desktop computer or smartphone. And it works with Mac OS X 10.4 and later (an added bonus for us "Lion-less" ones). Download it today.

Oh — and "one last thing". We highly recommend configuring a passcode for your iPhone and iPad (here's a great article about choosing passcodes and another one about the top 50 passwords you should never use). And while you're at it, be sure to disable automatic login on all of your Macs. This is something you should do regardless of whether or not you intend on installing security software such as Prey. Pardon our paranoia — just don't use all sixes or nines.

References And Footnotes

[1] iOS 5 users who don't have OS X Lion installed on their Mac desktop or laptop can still use Find My iPhone to track their iPhone (as well as an iPod touch and iPad) by downloading the app and setting up an iCloud Account on their iOS device (an iCloud e-mail account can also be configured for a Mac running Apple Mail using these settings). Logging onto iCloud from any computer will then allow you to find your iOS device. But the catch here is that you won't be able to locate any of your computers unless they're running OS X Lion. This is because the Find My Mac Service only works with OS X Lion.

[2] When installed on an iOS device, Prey uses the iOS Significant-Change Location Service. This low-power service instructs your iPhone or iPad to "poke" Prey whenever it connects to a different cell antenna, allowing Prey to be "woken up" whenever needed. It's a bit similar to Push Technology in some ways although it's much more complex and a heck of a lot stealthier. The Prey Blog provides a good explanation on exactly how all of this works.

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