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I have to be able to wipe a stolen laptop remotely (contractual obligation), and the only product I found that supports that on Ubuntu is Prey Project. (Also appears in some other stack exchange questions, e.g. this.)

However, besides the wiping feature having a moderate price, it seems to me that by just installing SSH to remotely log-in if needed (and do the wiping myself), I get a result which is at least as good, both "feature-wise" and "risk-wise". So the only advantage would be some convenience.

Same feature-wise: Well, if I can ssh into the laptop and know my root password, I can certainly wipe everything. (Or, if the attacker is so smart as to change the root password, he could then also disable Prey.) (Although I'm only interested in wiping, I guess this is more or less true for all the other features of Prey: if I log in as root, I can surely block the screen, sound the alarm, show random messages, or transfer files. Of course this would require a bit more work in some cases.) And, most important, both need an internet connection for work. (So if laptop is not turned on and connected to the internet, then they can't do anything.)

Same risk-wise: I did not find a description of what Prey does on its site, however, in this answer they state that it "pings regularly a server owned by prey". And the answer also states, that is is open source, and thus probably does not steal any data, or do "weird things" on the machine, but I think this could still be a risk. In contrast, the risk of opening an SSH port could be that someone finds a way to hack in and steal data or do other "weird things". That is indeed less likely with Prey, since it is pinging out, so does not need to open any ports on the host. However, one could still somehow gain access to Prey, and use it to steal files or wipe data. (And as said before, Prey could do it itself as well.) Therefore, I consider the two to be equal in terms of additional risks as well.

Question: is the above reasoning and conclusion correct, or am I missing something? In other words, does Prey provide more either feature-wise (can I do something with Prey that I can't do with SSH), or risk-wise (does using Prey have less extra risks than opening an SSH port)?

P.S.: Since the wiping, as I said, is mandated, please don't focus on whether this is a good practice or not (or alternatives, like "you should encrypt instead, and then wiping is not necessary" are also out of scope). However, in case there are any other products/solutions to do the wiping, that would also be interesting.

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    This sounds like the XY problem: if you don't want to leak data from misappropriated hardware, you should be encrypting it. Relying on connectivity to/from the device as the basis of a choice to wipe seems like you are planning to bolt the barn door after the horse has bolted. – symcbean Feb 4 at 14:49
  • I am not crazy about Prey after looking through source. They use the rm command to wipe data, which doesn't really wipe the data. github.com/prey/prey-bash-client-modules Obviously this depends a lot on your threat model... Prey might be easier sold though, and it would allow you to cue and wait without any creative solutions.... – they Feb 4 at 19:27
  • It's hard to imagine that someone would steal a laptop and you would be available to SSH in to it. Most places like home, work, or starbucks will all NAT your address. You might want to look into a persistent outbound ssh tunnel to a public box in your control. – David Houde Feb 5 at 18:17
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    If someone has access to your unencrypted hard drive, you’ve already lost. Therefore choose whatever tool is the cheapest/easiest to set up so that you can meet your contractual obligations. – Steve Feb 5 at 18:53
  • @DavidHoude also only amateurs would run the installed OS on a stolen laptop. A thief would either wipe and reformat it, if they want the hardware or remove the harddrive and create a image if they are after the data. – Josef Feb 13 at 12:10
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Nick from Prey's team here.

A quick tip on our wipe tool: It does modify the data before deleting it to avoid its recovery, and you can enable 2FA for extra security in your account.

All our connections are encrypted, and as for data encryption, we're currently working on a remote encryption tool as an alternative to this sort of cases.

  • Welcome. We do have some regular support people from vendors here, and it's great that you're here. We have some guidelines. First, no ads (I edited out the ad parts). Second, we require, just with everybody else, that you directly answer the question asked. You don't really talk about how this product is better than SSH in this use case. Can you expand your answer to address that question? – schroeder Feb 5 at 21:17
  • Sure! As Attilio states, our devices ping back to the server, not the other way around. We utilize an SSL connection that stays active through long-polling, which guarantees the stability of the connection.Plus, the queue is handled by GCP, GCM, and FCM. If any connection issues appear, you'll have certainty that both ends will deliver their requests/information as soon as they are back up online. – Nick from Prey Feb 6 at 14:17
  • Thanks for the feedback, @NickfromPrey. It is nice having one of the team answering the question :) What is GCP, GCM and GCF? First search result is Google Cloud Platform, Google Cloud Messaging and Firebase Cloud Messaging. Are you referring to these? And could you expand your answer to describe how they help. Re. modifying data: that is something I also can do if I can SSH into the laptop (or better yet, use something like srm to do that automatically) – Attilio Feb 13 at 10:44
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Thanks for all the feedback, in the answer above and also in the comments. I will try to summarize my understanding based on them. @NickFromPrey: would be nice if you could comment on that :)

Prey provides two advantages in security/functionality, which are not present if I just open an SSH port on my laptop:

  • 2FA
  • the "persistent outbound SSH" (or something equivalent*) mentioned in one of the comments, i.e. a way to access the laptop even if it is behind a NAT, or the SSH port would not be visible on the "outside" for some other reason

*) Something equivalent: I understand, it is NOT the same mechanism, but in the end I do get a constant connection based on "long-polling".

What I don't see as extra feature:

  • wiping/overwriting/encrypting data: this is something I can also do, if I manage to get SSH access.

Risk-wise I see the following pro (also written in the original question):

  • Polling out to the server is more secure for my laptop (polling a server from the client is less "hackable" than having an open port listening on the client)

Risk-wise I see the following con (also mentioned in the original question):

  • I have to trust that Prey does not steal/manipulate my data (unless of course I download and manually compile the source code after careful review...). The mentioned encrypted channel does nothing to mitigate this risk (e.g. the client could encrypt then send my data without my approval). I'm by no means implying that Prey does this, I'm just saying this is also a risk I'm taking.

Remark: of course, the SSH daemon could be malicious as well, the only difference is that it is more widely used and thus such a breach would cause more "scandal".

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