Chilean Project Preys on Device Thieves

Cell phone and computer theft is a problem in Chile, as it is in other locations.  Tómas Pollak is a Chilean former journalist turned computer programmer who, when his laptop got stolen, got mad. When his brother’s laptop got stolen a week after his wedding, Tómas got even madder. Then he decided to do something about it. He wrote a program called Prey to track computer thieves, take their photos, and transmit pictures of what they are doing back to the owner. The program has been downloaded three million times from the website and Google Apps and Apple iTunes markets. Prey has facilitated the recovery of hundreds if not thousands of stolen computers and cell phones.

Tómas is a self-described computer geek who embraces the “hippie, hacker culture” of computer programming and open source software. So, as with other geeks, his laptop runs Linux.  Tómas said, “I had written this piece of code to give me the ability to perform commands on my laptop if it was stolen. I knew what the pain felt like for your computer to be taken away and not have any way to get in contact with the device.” 

Tómas wrote “not more than a 100 lines of code” and tweaked the program to get it working on Apple hardware. Then he posted it on a blog and provided the source code free, so anyone could download it but the program was not ready for the average user. At that time you needed your own server to receive the stolen computer reports and it did not even work on Windows; being a Linux and Apple fan, Tómas said he had no intention of porting it to Windows.

Still, even with no easy way to use it, Tómas said, “It began to take off. Eventually it appeared in the Chilean media.”  Then the AFP newswire picked up the story. 

“I was getting calls from journalists in Colombia and Italy. [I thought] what am I going to do? There seemed to be a real need for something like this. A week after it appeared in the international media, I received an email from a Colombian guy who had actually taken the code and written the Windows version.” 

Tómas realized he needed to write a web page so people who were not experts could turn on and turn off prey and receive reports from their cell phones and computers and not have to run their own server.  At that time he went to an event at Google where he met another Chilean, Carlos Yacomi, who he asked to write the Android version.

“We started getting requests from companies that wanted to buy this thing. I began to receive email from people who wanted to track more devices and they were asking how much that cost.”  So he released a professional version, the price of which varies as the number of devices on which it can be used increases.

Tómas said that Prey really took off when the New York Times and the BBC reported two separate instances of people recovering their computers using Prey.

He relates one story: 

A guy from Canada who had a large Twitter following came to New York for the weekend. There, his laptop disappeared. He went back to Toronto then he started receiving stolen-computer reports from Prey. These reports showed the computer’s location, took pictures of the thief, and showed the computer screen so that you could see what the thief was doing. The Canadian called the NYPD and told them someone had his computer and he knew where they were located. The police told him he needed to physically come into the precinct and file a report before they could help him. Of course he could not do that; he was in Canada so he took to the internet and began tweeting about his stolen laptop. He put the thief’s picture online and the computer’s location.

Tómas says, “It was an exciting story, because everyone was following it in real time.”

One of his followers in New York tweeted back that he would go to the restaurant where the computer was located and get it back. The do-it-yourself policeman walked up to the thief, a guy who Tómas points out was not too big and scary.  Confronted, the thief babbled something about buying it in the street for $100.  The New Yorker then sent the computer to Toronto and the Canadian was happy.

Another person who recovered her device is María Jesús Palma Munita who lives in Santiago. María is a student at the University of the Andes.  She puts it like this, “I was paying for some clothes that I bought [at a shop]. When I left, it dawned on me that I had forgotten my cell phone there. I left it at the counter where you pay.”

So she went back to the store and asked the clerk if she had found the phone.  The clerk said yes, she had found it and announced over the intercom that if anyone had lost a cell phone please come forth and collect it. Here in Chile, companies pay models go to stores to promote products. So a model of maybe 17 years old, who was wearing clothing sporting the name Eveready Batteries, stepped forth and said it was hers. María was flabbergasted.

“She did not ask her for an ID card and unfortunately she gave this person my phone.”  Like the Canadian’s experience in New York, María said the police in Chile said they could not help her and told her to just forget about her stolen phone but María went home and started getting reports from Prey about the phone’s location.  (You can activate prey on a cell phone by sending it a text message or marking it lost on the control panel on the web site.) 

The reports showed that the girl had gone from one mall to another. María went to the other mall and saw the girl wearing the Eveready clothes with a cell phone in her hand.  “It was easy to identify her because of her clothes.” 

María confronted her. It was obvious that this phone belonged to María because it had her picture on the screen.

Tómas is proud of his accomplishment and has now grown his company, ForkHQ, building other products and adding more employees. Asked why there aren't more companies in Chile developing products like these — even with the government-funded organisation StartUp Chile handing out money to new ventures — he says one reason is Chile is very much a society based on class. People in the lower classes have a hard time breaking into business here, yet the politicians say developed-nation status is just over the horizon. 

Tómas says, “There are very few web entrepreneurs here who come from humble origins.  Most entrepreneurs are from middle to high class. When that changes I will be the first to proudly say Chile is a developed country.”


Walker Rowe is a US citizen living and working in Santiago, Chile. There he edits the online magazine and is currently writing a book about the pollution of the coast of Chile.


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Walker Rowe

Walker Rowe is a US citizen living and working in Santiago, Chile. There he edits the online magazine and writes the blog "The Avocado Republic" about life in rural Chile.

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