Social Media Crime Fighting: iPhone Edition

August 2nd, 2012

If you lose something, and you call the police, they will generally tell you its long gone. But what if you lose a phone equipped with a GPS, and you can tell the police where it is located. Will the cops care? What if the person who loses the phone is the Tech Reporter for the New York Times–David Pogue. Well, this happens. Gizmodo has a brilliant run-down of the events, but here it is in a nutshell.

Pogue lost his phone (it may have been snatched or pickpocketed) on Amtrak. But, the phone’s GPS was activated, and he was able to locate it somewhere in Montgomery County, Maryland. Gizmodo tracked down the house, where its located, how much its worth, and even the frequency of crime in the surrounding area.

But here is where the rubber meets the road. A police officer emails Gizmodo after seeing the blog. Let me repeat that. A cop offered to help someone based on reading a blog post. How often to police officers email someone who runs a blog writing about someone else who lost an iPhone? Remarkable.

What is even more remarkable is the email itself:

I’m a police officer that works in the area where DP’s phone is. I might be able to help, I can at least go knock on the door.

Any way to get in touch w/ DP? You can pass him my cell phone [REDACTED]. It would be helpful if when I’m @ the house in question, if he could make the alert tone sound.

Before knocking and pressing for the phone back, it would also be helpful to know how DP want’s to proceed if I can get the phone. IE, does he want to press charges against someone, or does he just want the phone back?? If he just want’s the phone, that substantially increases the chances of getting it back. If he want’s to press charges, he’s going to have to file a theft report in whichever jurisdiction he was in when the phone went missing (NOVA to Philly). Then, if they deny having the phone at the door, we’d have to try to get a search warrant, which is iffy at best given that we could be at the wrong house given the iPhone’s +/- accuracy on the GPS.

This isn’t a scam and I’m not a closet DP stalker. Just a tech guy that saw the post, possibly in a position to help.

The officer is asking DP (David Pogue) to make the phone alert when he gets near the door. Is that enough to knock down the door and make an arrest? Or at least to enter the home to search absent a warrant. If the owner of the home declines entry, and he hears a beeping iPhone, that is enough to seize the phone? Or start an arrest? Lots of people have beeping iPhones. At least the officer acknowledges that obtaining a warrant based on that data would be “iffy.”

And then, Prince George’s County Police recovered the phone. And how do they announce it? Twitter!

The phone was found in the grass–open fields doctrine FTW (but was it in the curtilage?)

The police continued to search the area indicated by Find My iPhone-and they found it in the backyard, in the grass, safe and sound.

What an unbelievable story. What a mind-blowing ride. It’s a story of social media and the Web, teaming up with law-enforcement, following a tip by the free Find My iPhone feature-to reclaim my lost phone five hours after I tweeted it.

I’m darned lucky. Lucky to have so many Twitter followers, of course. Lucky that they cared enough to get involved. Lucky that the police didn’t give up, and thought about searching the yard.

Lucky, and grateful. Very, very grateful.

Pogue has more details:

By the end of the day, the local police were actually at the house, with me on the phone. Find My iPhone has a great feature: From the Web site, you can make the phone ping, very loudly, for two minutes, even if its ringer is switched off. Over and over and over, I pinged the phone, so that the officer might hear it as he toured the house. My heart was in my throat; it was a cat-and-mouse game of GPS versus possible Bad Guy. I just kept hitting Refresh on the Find My iPhone screen, over and over again, in case the phone moved again.

Over an hour he spent searching. The backyard. The next-door house. The driveway. He never heard it, and he never found the phone. Near the end of his search, the phone went offline again. Either its battery died, or somebody got smart and shut it down so I couldn’t track it anymore.

I wasn’t worried about the data. The phone is password-protected, and of course the app lets me remotely wipe it clean of any data at any time. I was just bummed to lose a very expensive phone.

The police kept searching the area indicated by Find My iPhone — and eventually they found the phone in the backyard, in the grass, safe and sound.

Who needs the Bat Signal? The commissioner could just tweet the Dark Knight.