The Cops Can Get Your Stolen iPad Back, But They Won’t

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

About Brett Manchel

Really? Another "about me" box? I don't know what to say.
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12 Responses to The Cops Can Get Your Stolen iPad Back, But They Won’t

  1. J.R. says:

    The body of your article seems to indicate you understand the tedious process required on behalf of the police to track this down, yet your sensationalistic headline blames them. If you don’t work in law enforcement, you really are not qualified to Monday morning quarterback an agency’s investigation.

    First of all, I work for a large department and am assigned to my Zone’s burglary unit. There are two of us. We work primarily with the burglary detectives. There are two of them. They are forced to handle not only buglaries but also other part 1 crimes. There are a total of 9 detectives and this past week alone we had 3 aggravated assaults, 25 burglaries, 26 car break-ins, 28 other thefts, and 10 stolen cars. That works out to approximately 10 cases a week for each detective, who spends half of his day being interrupted by victims of the past 6 months looking for updates on their investigations.

    GPS and location based tracking tools are not nearly effective enough for use in apartment complexes or even any area where there are at least 2 possible target residences, so NO judge would issue a search warrant. Not to mention 8/10 people I ask never set up their iCloud account.

    IP addresses can be more reliable but you are looking at multiple subpoenas (one from Netflix, Xbox Live, Apple, etc. in order to get the suspect’s IP, and then another from their ISP). But what if that particular uses dynamic IP addresses? a proxy? What if the suspect ends up being at Starbucks or accessing the unsecured WiFi of a neighbor? You have to be able to show enough of a pattern for a judge to find it reasonable the IP belongs to the possessor of the stolen item. Many thieves only have to connect one time to do a system restore or turn off your GPS or re-install the OS on a computer…a judge might not sign that.

    You also have to look at the elements of the crime for theft and burglary. Without proving knowledge of the property being stolen all you can do is Theft by Receiving, which is a misdemeanor in many jurisdictions. This means slap on the wrist sentencing for many offenders ( even repeat ones). My county is not very helpful when prosecuting.

  2. Brett Manchel says:

    Hi J.R.

    Thanks for reading, and more importantly thanks for taking the time to leave a comment. You raise some good points.

    First: Sure, my headline “blames” the cops, but the article blames the system. Of course the police are just doing a job – they didn’t invent the system; they work within it. Blaming cops for doing work doesn’t get us anywhere and I don’t do that. But highlighting places where there is room for improvement I’d say is a public service. At the very least, let the public know the workings of such an investigation. They have a right to know, and without information, they’ll make presumptions.

    Second: I don’t work in law enforcement. But while they represent one side of the circumstance, I represent the other. Being on the receiving end of a crime doesn’t make me less qualified to comment on the police work involved in solving it, especially when information is not well communicated.

    Third: It’s somewhat minor, but you say “forced.” I don’t know what exactly you do, but in any event, being forced to do something is, generally, not a good thing. I know police agencies are bogged down with too much work. I’m glad they do what they can, certainly. But don’t say they are “forced” to work on theft cases, unless you’d rather not (which would basically support my premise that the system needs some fixing). It’s not good that your department was faced with so many crimes in that week; it is also not good that too much time gets taken up by victims asking for updates. Perhaps a better way of communicating with the public would alleviate this annoyance?

    Third: Your points on getting a search warrant are well taken. Nevertheless, I’ll point out the thousands of John Doe lawsuits in Federal courts regarding copyright infringement. Those defendants are sued merely based on their IP addresses, and in some cases, the court rules the ISP has to turn over the account holder’s name; in other cases, the court has been more vigilant in seeking better evidence. I’d say more people than 8/10 have established an iCloud account – either way, so long as there is internet activity with some account that is continuously connecting (i.e. gmail), then google, for example, would be a source to get the IP address rather than Apple. If the culprit is at a Starbucks on free, open Internet, at least that is a place to start looking. If a cop won’t do it, it’s enough information so that a victim could go scope out the area. So even if you can’t get to the identification phase, the IP phase is helpful.

    Fourth: Yes, sometimes it is harder to prove elements of a crime. That’s not an excuse. To make the previous point again: it is the system. A busy prosecutor surely things he or she has bigger fish to fry than busting the local theft-ring. But I’m willing to bet that if you protect people’s phones and tablets, you’re looking at an increase in votes. But again, it is all how it fits into the system. The fact that this type of crime is so frequent and widespread is because the perpetrators are effectively allowed to get away with it. And regarding the elements: larceny is a specific intent crime. If one intends to take the personal property of another (say, my sister’s iPad), carry it away (moving it outside of the house is more than enough), by trespass (the perp was not invited inside the house), with the intent to permanently deprive the owner of the property (still no iPad back…) then we have all the elements of larceny. If the person who is caught with the stolen goods can’t be placed at the scene or doesn’t admit to taking the property, then yes, possession of stolen goods is what’s left. Still, the most important thing to for a victim, probably, is getting the property back. Or it could be the feeling of justice for someone who’s privacy and security had been invaded. A slap on the wrist, or not, the issuance of justice, however employed, can bring closure.

  3. Tim Kukler says:

    This article is like the rant of a very old man who can’t see the big picture. Who CARES if a mobile device was stolen? With the amount of murders and car thefts per year in my city — as a civilian may I say that I do hope the officers here ignore you completely as they have LIFE threatening issues to address and thefts of cars are $20,000.00 and up. If you want to deter theft of your little $199 iPhone please buy a $99 alarm system and how about this – lock your windows. How about encrypting your data? How about springing for the $7 a month replacement “insurance” ? I’d rather officers spend their time ticketing folks who run red lights and/or speed, drive aggressively, all LIFE threatening for me as a cyclist, than looking after your cheap property. No, I don’t care if your ‘data” was stolen there are 2000 apps to encrypt that and most are free. That you didn’t encrypt doesn’t make it any bigger crime and worthy of distracting an officer’s time.

    • Trevor says:

      Except there are Property Crimes units that don’t investigate rape, murder, etc. They investigate property crimes. It is a department dedicated (even if understaffed at times) to investigations of non-violent crimes. Your argument is bunk.

  4. Chris Spirrison says:

    Hey Tim. I think you are a little harsh. First, I would rather have cops trying to catch scumbag rats who are stealing peoples belongings than sitting at a median looking for seatbelt violators. If the only option is to catch a rapist or a cell phone thief, then yes I agree they need to prioritize.
    You certainly don’t need to act like a douchebag because this guy wants his property back. Because it didn’t happen to you it is not a priority. when it does happen to you, I can tell by your post you will be the first to act like a little bitch, crying to anyone who will listen.

  5. Ann Jones says:

    The fact that there are murderers and rapist out there doesn’t matter when they are worried about busting someone for having a joint. If you are driving a car with out of state tags they sure do the search fast enough in some places.
    That someone broke into the bedroom of a child should have made this case more important. Even being there is a burglary charge in some places.

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