The death of theft thanks to apps

Will software that hunts down our property one day render our stuff almost unstealable? Gillian Orr tracks the answer

As a nation, we are a calamitous bunch. Last year, one in six Britons either lost their phone or had it stolen; that's a staggering 20,000 phones separated from their owners every single day. Add to this the depressing statistic that a laptop is stolen every 53 seconds in the UK and that's a lot of missing technology.

And because we now rely on devices such as smartphones and laptops for a multitude of tasks – everything from emailing to storing photographs and listening to music – it has become even more devastating when these items go astray.

Predictably in a recession, robberies are increasing and the Home Office reported a 4 per cent rise in theft in England and Wales last year, with pieces such as phones and laptops at the top of a thief's wish list (it is believed that half of all street crime involves the theft of a mobile phone).

But the good news is that the rise of programmes and apps designed to tackle thefts – paired with the ubiquity of global-positioning satellite systems in the devices themselves – are making it increasingly harder for thieves to do their work.

Leading the charge is Apple and its Find My iPhone app, which works through iCloud, a service that stores your music, photos, apps, calendars, and documents and wirelessly pushes them to all your devices.

Find My iPhone, which can also help you locate your Mac and iPod touch, works by signing in online from any computer web browser or using the app on another iPhone, iPad or iPod touch and allowing you to track your iPhone on a map using the GPS system, down to the street or building it is in, depending on the strength of the signal.

You can also write a message to be displayed on the missing device's screen for whoever has it to read or get the device to emit a loud alarm, overriding volume settings, to draw attention to it.

While Apple pushes this service as a way of locating misplaced items, there have been a number of cases of people taking the law into their own hands and going on a vigilante mission to retrieve their stolen goods using the app.

Most are using the tools to track down the location of their devices before handing the details over to the police. (It's worth pointing out that you should keep a note of the item's serial number and sales receipt in order to prove that it is your property). And it's not just phones that are rapidly being retrieved this way. When the American software engineer Joshua Kaufman had his MacBook stolen in March, he used a security app called Hidden (hiddenapp.com), which allowed him to see everything that was happening on his laptop from afar and take photos of the new "owner" using the built-in camera.

He then posted the photos on a Tumblr account called This Guy Has My MacBook; its success in getting the computer returned resulted in rumours that it was a marketing ploy for the firm. Hidden was forced to issue a statement denying any connection to Kaufmann or his Tumblr account.

There are dozens of stories about people using an abundance of tracking software, including Prey and Orbicule, to recover stolen items. Even Will Carling, the former England rugby captain, shared his adventures on Twitter after he tracked the person who stole his iPad from a train down to a block of flats in Surrey using the Find My iPhone software earlier this year. "Just sent the moving iPad a message telling them they are being tracked! quoted police crime reference. Shall update soon," Carling wrote as he honed in on his tablet.

"We will see a lot more of this in the future," says Thomas Cannon, director of research and development for viaForensics, a digital forensics and security firm. "We now have the fundamental technological building blocks for creating and deploying such technology in the form of pervasive wireless coverage, increased processing power in mobile devices, miniaturisation of components and the concept of cloud computing to accept, store and process the vast amounts of data it will generate."

However, he is not without his reservations about such technology. "I have some concerns about such tracking from a security and privacy point of view – who is going to regulate and control access to such data and will people's privacy and personal security be infringed?"

And it's not just phones and computers that are being tracked via technology – a service called Trace Me can help locate your luggage when it is lost by airlines. Currently 35 million bags are lost every year with six million never being identified; baggage handlers often have only a physical description of the bag to help identify it.

A credit card-sized tag that has a unique serial number and barcode is attached to each piece of luggage and, if lost, can be activated online on the database that is used by airlines, law-enforcement agencies, lost luggage and baggage-handling offices around the world.

With the cost of this kind of hardware plummeting – and new types of 3D printheads being able to print computer chips on to any kind of surface – it's conceivable that we could chip and track anything from handbags to shoes to clothes in the next few years. But for now, advances in tracking technology ought to give would-be technology thieves a reason to pause for thought.

Keep tabs on your tech: The apps that find tour phones and pcs

Find My iPhone

Having enabled the app through iCloud, should you lose your iPhone you can sign into icloud.com from any computer browser and it will display your handset's approximate location on a map.

Hidden

When your Mac is lost or stolen, Hidden will show you where it is and who has it. Able to locate it anywhere, it will collect photos of the thief and screen shots of the computer in use.

Prey

By marking your phone or laptop as missing, Prey will gather information about its location and network status and email it to you while triggering specific actions on the device. Works on Android, Windows and Apple devices.

Berry Locator

Email your own email address from anywhere with a specific subject line and your BlackBerry will light up/flash/vibrate and then send an email back to you with its GPS location.

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