UPDATE: ArsTechnica has a great success story about finding a lost/stolen Droid. Notice again how the San Diego police refused to help, despite GPS coordinates of a house, and the author/phone owner had to act in his own capacity to recover his stolen phone. Also — this Plan B app by Lookout seems worth looking into (if you have an Android device, they have no Apple apps).
Here’s the situation:
My sister’s iPad and cell phone were stolen from her bedroom (while she was sleeping — :gasp:). Immediately, she called the police. What transpired proved to be nothing short of an utter embarrassment for law enforcement in the 21st century.
That devices today are GPS and location-enabled is both a gift and a curse. Everyone is consciously putting gigatons of geodata all over the Internet. But at the same time, the collective consumer conscious is clamoring that their personal information is not protected. Regardless, a real benefit of location-aware devices and apps comes when said devices are aware that they are stolen. In that case, location awareness makes or breaks a safe return of a very prized possession.
When anything internet-enabled connects to the Internet, we instantly know much information. We know where it is, and whether it is connected to a cell network or a WiFi network. But these devices are also easily moveable, and tend to go from one place to another very different place quite quickly. The technical process for tracking such a device is not terribly difficult or time consuming. But the actual process, however, renders a safe return pretty much dependent on luck. With law enforcement’s involvement, recovering a stolen iPad becomes tedious, frustrating, and essentially a dead-end road.
Presumably, whoever has your stuff knows it is stolen, and that you are looking for it. If he’s somewhat competent, he’ll know that as soon as he gets online with your device, he starts leaving a trail (at least until he disconnects). So, getting a hit of your stolen iPad on MobileMe or some other tracking software/site is like finding a small piece of gold. You can use that information and get the police to go get your stuff, right? Wrong. In fact, it is likely that your gold is about to turn in to lead.
Even though time is of the complete and utter essence, the po-po’s don’t exactly pull stolen stuff out of a magic hat. In fact, when they are dealing with rapes and murders and stabbings, your cell or iPad is more or less meaningless to them. “It’s just not high on the priority list.” They told me that. I mean, it is understandable that law enforcement has to prioritize — it’s basic triage. But the problem arises when “to protect and serve” becomes qualified by the type of crime needing investigation. Nowadays, theft of an electronic device is not like theft of some other tangible good — its theft of identity, theft of IP, invasion of privacy, and it opens the door for harassment. With all due respect, that is pretty serious stuff. Not to mention the (inordinate) amount of value we place in our iDevices and smartphones makes them that much more important to recover.
The most frustrating aspect of the lost iPad scenario is that, while law enforcement has a way to track the device, the law itself doesn’t really want them to go get it ASAP. Notwithstanding the Fourth Amendment, which I say is great, the process to get the necessary subpoenas and subsequent search warrants takes T I M E. Unless you’ve got some FBI joint tast force working for you, well, the “system” is stacked against you.
First, the police have to agree to take the case. Again, when you call about your stolen iGadget, it makes them groan. They care about you, but they have to care about you. They won’t stop you from filing a report, of course, but for them to begin the tracking process, the case has to get assigned to a detective, and go through all that bureaucratic stuff. That seems basic; I mean, it’s what needs to be done to track stolen property. But for some reason, law enforcement operates on this weird schedule. Apparently being a detective is not always a Monday-Friday job. Regarding the personal story that sparked this post, I’ve had to talk to no less than four detectives, because no one worked consecutive days. I don’t see how that helps solve crimes. +4-5 days.
Second, once you get past the first wall, you have to wait for the cops to call (in this case) Apple. I don’t know what happens then, because Apple only talks to law enforcement officers. I assume their technical staff in the relevant department will look up to see the IP address of where the device got online. This happens only with a subpoena though, which is some more paper work for the police. + 2-5 days.
Third, once the police receive the IP address, they’ve got to get a search warrant for the Internet Service Provider (e.g. Comcast) to release the name of the person that the IP address belongs to. We have not made it to this point yet (it’s been two weeks and we’ve only now made contact with a detective willing to take the necessary steps), so I can’t say how long this step takes. But, I’ll speculate its a few days to a week. +5-7 days
Fourth, with the name of the IP address owner, the police then should get another search warrant to go into the owner’s house and look for evidence of stolen property. +1-2 days (hopefully)
So, given the current landscape, it seems the fastest that the police can take decisive action to recovering the stolen phone/pad is about 2 weeks. The nice detective we finally got a hold of politely informed me that she wanted to get the iPad back, but in all likelihood, it’s probably not in this country anymore. She was much better than another detective, who didn’t even know about the process of subpoenas for the IP address. Though the totally inefficient way of recovering a stolen, trackable item is not her fault, the process essentially subsidizes the black market, basically ensuring that thefts continue. Ideally, the lost device should be found, recovered, and the thief should be arrested within 2 days. Knowing that it takes as long as it does to find something and take any remedial action, criminals are basically granted immunity. And there’s nothing the police can do, or are doing, to stop what are presumably huge theft rings. Priorities and time are opportunity costs, but there has to be a better way. This system is tragically broken.
And it’s asinine. The value of the electronics aside, robbers are entering young people’s bedrooms at night while they are sleeping, identities are being stolen, other crimes are being committed. It’s not just “oh my phone and iPad were stolen,” — if that’s all, then you were lucky. These devices have too much personal information on them; the bigger issue is that the data is stolen. Law enforcement needs to redouble efforts to recover stolen devices — especially those that are so easy to track.
Crime Scene tape image from AlanCleaver_2000