One Man, One Stolen Laptop… And Twitter, Prey (And A Purple Sarong?) To The Rescue

from the and-a-purple-sarong dept

A whole bunch of folks have been sending in random versions of the story of how author Sean Power recovered his stolen laptop despite being in another country, thanks to the power of social media, some open source software and some good samaritans. The “short” version is that Sean had his laptop stolen a few days ago in New York City, just a day before he had to go to Canada for a few days. He had some open source anti-theft software on there, called Prey. I’d never heard of it, but it gets excellent reviews. Anyway, after not being alerted to anything for a few days, Sean suddenly was notified that someone was using his laptop — and he mentioned it on Twitter. From there, it helps to follow the story on Twitter, and thankfully Ryan Ozawa used Storify to post the relevant tweets:

You really should read the story as it happens, but basically some girl got wind of the story (it’s still not entirely clear how… since she’s not on Twitter), and went to the bar where the guy with the laptop was. She befriended some of the bartenders and others at the bar and found out that the guy with the laptop had some sort of connection with the bar. Reading through the various tweets, there is some confusion over who’s who in this story, but the nameless girl in the purple sarong was soon backed up by another guy, Nick Reese, who just saw the story unfolding on Twitter and (as a brand new NYC resident) decided to jump in. The girl in the purple sarong apparently flirted with one of the two guys (Max) with the laptop, and got his business card. Sean had called the police, but they refused to go, since Sean hadn’t filed a police report (he claims he didn’t have time before leaving for Canada). Eventually, Sean called the phone number on the card, leading Max to call the other guy at the bar (Paulo) just as Nick and Purple Sarong Girl (PSG?) were confronting him. After some back and forth, Nick pulled out his phone and showed Paulo the photo of Paulo on the laptop from the webcam that Sean had gotten from Prey and posted to Twitter. Not surprisingly, that quickly led to the laptop (and the laptop bag) being handed over…

Nick and the girl in the purple sarong then put up a video of what happened which is both mildly entertaining and mildly frustrating (and it’s not hard to assume that the girl has consumed a fair bit of alcohol by this point — and I think I have to agree with the Village Voice that she may be the most annoying woman in the world) Update: The video has been set to private. Reese is claiming it’s to “protect the identity” of the girl — which seems odd…

All in all it’s quite a story. There have been a few people suggesting this is just a publicity stunt for Prey, but plenty of folks are insisting that’s not the case. To be honest, even if it is a publicity stunt for Prey, I gotta say that it’s fantastically well-done, and amazingly compelling. I wouldn’t care if it were a publicity stunt, because then the story would be about how to make brilliantly compelling marketing… But, again, most people are insisting that this was all real, and then the story is just about the wonders of modern technology combined with good people. A story of our times…

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Comments on “One Man, One Stolen Laptop… And Twitter, Prey (And A Purple Sarong?) To The Rescue”

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16 Comments
aldestrawk says:

So, Prey, is basically the same system that was discussed in this recent Techdirt article.
http://www.techdirt.com/articles/20110505/00424214164/laptop-rental-provider-sued-spying-renters-via-surreptitious-webcam-software.shtml#c326

The “agent” running on the computer contacts a server not controlled by the computer’s owner. The owner then logs into their account to trigger collection of information about the current user (thief). In both cases a thief will be caught by using surreptitiously collected information while the computer is being used. The differences are;

1) Is someone who defaults on payments the same as a thief?

2) There was apparently no process in place to deactivate the agent when the rented computer was purchased.

This brings up the following questions:
-When someone stops subscribing to Prey, is the agent still active?
-Is the user told how to completely deactivate the agent at that time?
-What mechanism prevents an admin for the Prey server from changing settings for an account and doing some snooping?
-What is to prevent someone lending out such a computer to an unsuspecting soul and doing a little snooping of their own?
-If law enforcement is aware that such software is installed on someone’s computer can they do some remote viewing with a wiretap order, search warrant, subpoena, NSL, or none of the above?

aldestrawk says:

Re: Re: Re:

My understanding is that the computer was paid off, they bought it, but the records were screwed up. They, being the rental company, should have had a process in place to un-install the monitoring (agent) software when a rental was actually purchased. Apart from that whole incident I am pointing out the closeness of the situation where a renter defaults or steals the computer compared to an owner installing such theft recovery software himself.

Nick Coghlan (profile) says:

Re: Re:

While the lifehacker article Mike linked glosses over it, the advanced “Standalone” mode of Prey is designed precisely so that you don’t *have* to trust their servers.

Instead, you can review the open source code for the client (or pay someone you trust to do it for you) and set it up to email you directly with any reports. You just have to set up a URL that the client can check to decide whether or not to go into “I’ve been stolen” mode.

Like any remote control software, it does create a new point of vulnerability for your system, but I expect many folks will consider the trade-off to be worth it.

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