Crime victims become hi-tech detectives to trace stolen gadgets

One of the most famous faces on the internet at the moment belongs to a taxi driver who has been exposed as a thief in a very modern case of digital sleuthing that is helping aggrieved geeks and gadget owners to be reunited with their stolen goods.

From Surrey to San Francisco, software is doing the job of the police as vigilantes use tracking programmes more commonly seen in CIA action thrillers to locate missing computers and phones. In April, the ex-England rugby captain Will Carling traced his stolen iPad to a block of flats in Woking. He knocked on all the doors – to no avail – then traced its movement through the town while detailing the chase on Twitter. The iPad was eventually handed in to local police.

The guilty taxi driver stole a laptop belonging to Joshua Kaufman in Oakland, California, last month. What he didn't know was that Kaufman had installed software that activated the machine's built-in camera. When police told Kaufman they didn't have the resources to find his laptop, he spent four weeks gathering photos and location data using a software package called Hidden. He presented this evidence to the police but got no reply so posted pictures of the thief staring at the screen to his blog, where they went viral and were viewed by millions. It wasn't until a US news show contacted Oakland police to ask them about Mr Kaufman's post, that they sprung into action – more than 10 weeks after the theft.

"It's these kind of partnerships that make things happen," said an officer to Mr Kaufman, glossing over the fact that their action was prompted largely by a national broadcaster.

Pioneering geeks realised years ago that remote access services – such as LogMeIn.com and Apple's "Back To My Mac" – could allow them to spy on the activities of the person who had connected to the internet using their stolen machine; this idea was extended by software such as Absolute's LoJack For Laptops and Orbicule's Undercover, which made the process more clandestine, by regularly sending location data, screengrabs and webcam pictures.

Since November last year, owners of iPads and recent models of iPhone have had access to a free feature called "Find My iPhone"; after enabling it on the device, its location can be pinpointed by logging into a website, and it can also be sent messages, locked down, or its contents erased completely. You may have precise knowledge of where your laptop is, but if the police are are too busy to follow it up, your choices seem to be limited to knocking on the door yourself (inadvisable unless you're a former rugby player, perhaps) or turning to the media for help.

The publicity surrounding Mr Kaufman's laptop and, before that, Carling's iPad, has led to a surge of interest in Hidden and similar software packages, which can only be a good thing; even if a stolen device cannot be retrieved, at least data can be protected by remote locking or erasing.

Absolute's LoJack software perhaps offers the most sensible answer to worries about misplaced heroics or vigilante action after a theft; the company deals with the police on your behalf, and doesn't tell you the location of the your item once it's reported stolen.

"I read about a case recently where a person encountered someone with an iPhone in the vicinity of where their stolen one was supposedly located," says Absolute's general manager Dave Everett. "They beat up that person and they ended up being prosecuted. They had no idea of the forensics – but our tools are approved by ACPO (the Association of Chief Police Officers) and analyse the data in greater detail."

The taxi driver in the Kaufman case would have been thankful for this approach; he may well have purchased the stolen machine innocently, but he's now been cyber-branded as a thief.

Lost and found

The iPad pursuit

A former England sports star might find the public more than willing to help with a search for their stolen property, but Will Carling took matters into his own hands in February, detailing on Twitter his journey around Woking looking for his missing iPad. "Can't believe this," he wrote. "[It's] now showing it near the station round the back of some shops – has it been dumped???" It was handed in to Woking police.

The indestructible smartphone

In March this year, US Air Force sergeant Ron Walker accidentally dropped his iPhone out of a plane flying at approximately 1000ft. After logging in to Apple's Find My iPhone service he was surprised to find it emitting a signal; it was eventually found, fully intact, lying next to a tree in dense forest in North Carolina. "It looked like someone had sat the phone down and walked away," said Walker.

The stolen car

Last October, a woman in Cincinnati had her car stolen as she popped into a dry cleaners. She'd left her mobile phone in the car, and police were able to gain access to the phone's GPS facility; the driver was tracked as he made his way through town (making purchases using the credit card as he went) and was eventually arrested.

The Twitter vigilante

Last month, Canadian web analyst Sean Power used a software package called Prey to retrieve details of a laptop thief, which he posted on Twitter; a number of his online acquaintances followed the culprit around New York, with one finally confronting him in a bar and persuading him to hand over the item. Power decided not to press charges.

Suggested Topics
News
Ian Thorpe had Rio 2016 in his sights
people
Sport
Thiago Silva pulls Arjen Robben back to concede a penalty
world cup 2014Brazil 0 Netherlands 3: More misery for hosts as Dutch take third place
News
Tommy Ramone performing at The Old Waldorf Nightclub in 1978 in San Francisco, California.
peopleDrummer Tommy was last surviving member of seminal band
Life and Style
Swimsuit, £245, by Agent Provocateur
fashion

Diving in at the deep end is no excuse for shirking the style stakes

PROMOTED VIDEO
Life and Style
ebookA wonderful selection of salads, starters and mains featuring venison, grouse and other game
Life and Style
Several male celebrities have confessed to being on a diet, including, from left to right, Hugh Grant, Benedict Cumberbatch and Ryan Reynolds
life...and the weight loss industry is rubbing its hands in glee
Voices
Spectators photograph the Tour de France riders as they make their way through the Yorkshire countryside
voicesHoward Jacobson: Line the streets for a cycling race? You might just as well watch a swarm of wasps
Life and Style
lifeHere's one answer to an inquisitive Reddit user's question
Arts and Entertainment
'Eminem's recovery from substance abuse has made him a more potent performer, with physical charisma and energy he never had before'
arts + entsReview: Wembley Stadium ***
Sport
Joe Root and James Anderson celebrate their record-beaking partnership
cricketEngland's last-wicket stand against India rewrites the history books
News
peopleDave Legeno, the actor who played werewolf Fenrir Greyback in the Harry Potter films, has died
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Gadgets & Tech

    C# Developer (HTML5, JavaScript, ASP.NET, Mathematics, Entity)

    £30000 - £45000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: C# Developer (...

    C# Integration Developer (.NET, Tibco EMS, SQL 2008/2012, XML)

    £60000 - £80000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: C# Integration...

    PHP Web Developer (HTML5, CSS3, Jenkins, Vagrant, MySQL)

    £40000 - £45000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: PHP Web Develo...

    JavaScript Developer (Angular, Web Forms, HTML5, Ext JS,CSS3)

    £40000 - £45000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: JavaScript Dev...

    Day In a Page

    Iraq crisis: How Saudi Arabia helped Isis take over the north of the country

    How Saudi Arabia helped Isis take over the northern Iraq

    A speech by an ex-MI6 boss hints at a plan going back over a decade. In some areas, being Shia is akin to being a Jew in Nazi Germany, says Patrick Cockburn
    The evolution of Andy Serkis: First Gollum, then King Kong - now the actor is swinging through the trees in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

    The evolution of Andy Serkis

    First Gollum, then King Kong - now the actor is swinging through the trees in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
    You thought 'Benefits Street' was controversial: Follow-up documentary 'Immigrant Street' has got locals worried

    You thought 'Benefits Street' was controversial...

    Follow-up documentary 'Immigrant Street' has got locals worried
    Refugee children from Central America let down by Washington's high ideals

    Refugee children let down by Washington's high ideals

    Democrats and Republicans refuse to set aside their differences to cope with the influx of desperate Central Americas, says Rupert Cornwell
    Children's books are too white, says Laureate

    Children's books are too white, says Laureate

    Malorie Blackman appeals for a better ethnic mix of authors and characters and the illustrator Quentin Blake comes to the rescue
    Blackest is the new black: Scientists have developed a material so dark that you can't see it...

    Blackest is the new black

    Scientists have developed a material so dark that you can't see it...
    Matthew Barzun: America's diplomatic dude

    Matthew Barzun: America's diplomatic dude

    The US Ambassador to London holds 'jeans and beer' gigs at his official residence – it's all part of the job, he tells Chris Green
    Meet the Quantified Selfers: From heart rates to happiness, there is little this fast-growing, self-tracking community won't monitor

    Meet the 'Quantified Selfers'

    From heart rates to happiness, there is little this fast-growing, self-tracking community won't monitor
    Madani Younis: Five-star reviews are just the opening act for British theatre's first non-white artistic director

    Five-star reviews are just the opening act for British theatre's first non-white artistic director

    Madani Younis wants the neighbourhood to follow his work as closely as his audiences do
    Mrs Brown and her boys: are they having a laugh?

    Mrs Brown and her boys: are they having a laugh?

    When it comes to national stereotyping, the Irish – among others – know it can pay to play up to outsiders' expectations, says DJ Taylor
    Gavin Maxwell's bitter legacy: Was the otter man the wildlife champion he appeared to be?

    Otter man Gavin Maxwell's bitter legacy

    The aristocrat's eccentric devotion to his pets inspired a generation. But our greatest living nature writer believes his legacy has been quite toxic
    Joanna Rowsell: The World Champion cyclist on breaking her collarbone, shattering her teeth - and dealing with alopecia

    Joanna Rowsell: 'I wear my wig to look normal'

    The World Champion cyclist on breaking her collarbone, shattering her teeth - and dealing with alopecia
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef gives raw ingredients a lift with his quick marinades

    Bill Granger's quick and delicious marinades

    Our chef's marinades are great for weekend barbecuing, but are also a delicious way of injecting flavour into, and breaking the monotony of, weekday meals
    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

    Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting
    Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

    Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

    In the final part of our series, Chris Green arrives in Glasgow - a host city struggling to keep the politics out of its celebration of sport