Tracking apps might not help recover stolen devices

If you think tracking software on your smartphone or tablet will help you recover it if it’s stolen, you might be mistaken.

You might recall reading about Melissa Sharpe and fiancé Nick Renzi in January. Traveling on Delta out of Hartsfield-Jackson airport during the end-of-year holiday season, the couple realized Renzi’s work iPad was accidentally left on their plane. The tablet’s “Find my iPad” software tracked it to a house in McDonough, but the location sometimes drifted to the property next door.

The couple filed a report with Atlanta police, whose jurisdiction includes the airport. But the cops didn’t swoop in on the house, arrest the bad guy and return the iPad to its lawful owner. That’s because the location was inconsistent, APD spokesman Carlos Campos said. The ability to obtain a search warrant revolves around probable cause, which is difficult to establish if tracking software isn’t precise, he said.

“It really depends greatly on the technology,” he said. “For example, you have the Find my iPhone or iPad app, that only shows a general location.”

But, Campos said, if your software provides a specific address or takes a picture of the suspect, obtaining a warrant is more realistic.

An Apple representative would not comment on the precision of its “Find my iPhone” or “Find my iPad” software. The company’s online description certainly doesn’t claim pinpoint accuracy: “Find My iPad shows you the approximate location of your iPad on a map.”

On the other hand …

In Gwinnett County last month, a delivery driver for Joe’s to Goes was robbed at gunpoint of his cellphone, GPS unit, $30 — and chicken wings.

The driver returned to the Snellville restaurant, called Gwinnett police and pinpointed the location of his phone — a Samsung Galaxy S2 — to a Snellville residence, said Cpl. Jake Smith. Officers drove to the house and received consent from the owners to search the home.

Inside was a person who matched the driver’s description of the suspect. The victim activated a security feature to make his phone ring, allowing officers to find it in the house — along with the chicken wings, and later the GPS and cash — and make an arrest.

“Within minutes after the robbery,” Smith said, “we had a location pulled up on the computer, and it wasn’t moving. This was a very good case to use this kind of information. It didn’t even get to the level of a search warrant.”

But, like Campos of the APD, Smith says a warrant based on tracking software alone can be more difficult.

“It can depend on the phone itself. It can depend on the coverage the phone is getting at that particular moment, how close it is to cellphone towers or what satellites it’s beeping off of.”

While Sharpe’s experience was frustrating, the Smyrna resident’s story eventually had a good ending. Her fiancé’s iPad was turned in to Delta after the couple performed a remote wipe to erase personal information. But the 29-year-old has spent months wondering why the tablet’s tracking software wasn’t good enough for the police in her case.

“I understand that it’s fairly new, and that it’s not 100 percent accurate. You think you can get help based on what you have, but then they tell you, you can’t.”

Some non-native apps to consider

Lookout: Sounds an alarm, even if your phone or tablet is in silent mode, to discourage thieves from keeping it. Features include locator, remote lock, remote wipe. (free)

Prey: Allows you to take a picture of the thief remotely if he or she uses your phone, tablet or laptop. Features include locator, remote lock. (free)

Lojack for laptops: From the company known for its auto-recovery units, it also provides a “team” to work with police if your laptop is stolen. Features include locator, remote lock, remote wipe. (starts at $39.99 a year)

– By Lauren Davidson, Atlanta Bargain Hunter

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2 comments Add your comment

[...] From Atlanta Blogs News Source: ____________________________________________________ [...]

Doug Belfiore

July 10th, 2012
3:54 pm

Hello, Ms. Davidson:

Thank you for your informative article, which accurately sets expectations for the performance of tracking software you discuss.

Before I offer my feedback, I must provide this full disclosure: I represent a firm that provides a physical anti-theft, recovery and registration database system coupled with an asset-tracking, geolocation and data-protection software system for laptops and other mobile devices.

Now, my comments:

Probable Cause/Due Process – Thank Goodness for them!
You’re spot on about the legal obstacles that must be overcome before law enforcement agents can legally move in to recover the stolen item. These obstacles can slow down the investigation/recovery/arrest/prosecution process significantly. But would we have it any other way? Would we really want law enforcement to be able to beat down our door, toss us to the ground and cuff us at will, as they search for what was reported as a stolen laptop or tablet? And even with probable cause and legal search warrants, the hard fact is that law enforcement agencies, especially these days, when they suffer from severe shortages of human and fiscal resources, will pursue larger and more serious crimes than these relatively small property crimes.

Also, while snapping a picture of a “suspect” from on-board camera on the stolen device may have a lot of high-tech appeal, and may even facilitate the search-warrant process, I believe this opens up both the owner and law enforcement agencies to the risk of being sued by someone who has unknowingly or innocently taken possession of a stolen device. Imagine a video or still picture of that innocent person being splashed all over YouTube, Facebook and other social media with the caption “a picture of the thief with my stolen MacBook.”

Further, the privacy issue is huge when camera-assisted tracking software is deployed in large public enterprise settings. For more on this topic, Google “Robbins vs. Lower Merion School District.”

So, Now You’ve Located It – Now What?
Most of the commercially available tracking software systems, including ours, track Internet-connected devices primarily through these two methods: Public IP Address; Wi-Fi Triangulation. So let’s look at each one:

Public IP Address: Reports the IP of a device that is accessing the Internet through an Internet Service Provider (ISP). Sometimes the Public IP is a permanent address, but more often it is a temporary IP address assigned by the ISP at the time of access. So for example, if someone steals a device and then goes online through a cable provider, that device will be assigned a temporary IP address by the cable provider for that session. Now, imagine the work required of both the cable provider and search-warrant-carrying law enforcement agent in order to match a physical location to that IP address at that precise time of day. And who’s to say that the thief and the device will be at that location when the arresting officer arrives?

Wi-Fi Triangulation: More precise geolocation. If the device is Wi-Fi enabled, it measures signals from multiple local Wi-Fi transmitters, processes them through a huge database and presents a more precise but average location of that device. To your point in the article, this method doesn’t always locate the device with enough precision to give law enforcement the probable cause they need to move in. Our firm advises our customers that our Wi-Fi triangulation is accurate to within 100 feet. From my own tests, I’ve seen geolocation ranging from dead-on to within 100 feet. My personal PC at home actually consistently shows up in the road in front of my house – about 100 feet away! Likely enough to give an investigator probable cause, but worth the time and effort with limited resources?

My point here is, sure, it would be really excellent to get your stolen device back and lock up the culprit for the next hundred years. But the cruel reality is, once a device is stolen, it’s really hard to get it back. Many firms do not directly address this reality in their marketing materials. True, chances of recovery are better with tracking software or a permanent ID marking system like our firm provides, but our firm believes that the best approach is PREVENTION.

A Few Simple Tips for Preventing Theft
> Permanently mark the device, to enable recovery in the event it’s lost/stolen and then found; just don’t put personal ID numbers like SSN, License Number, etc. on the device. Permanent marking will also reduce or eliminate illicit resale value, making a quick sale on the street more difficult, and hopefully discouraging would-be thieves from stealing the device in the first place.

> Lock it up in a safe place whenever possible.

> Never leave it in your car, not even in the trunk; an experienced thief can smash ‘n’ grab your stuff in about 15 – 20 seconds. Take it with you.

> When you take it with you, never let it out of your sight.

> Treat your laptop, smartphone, tablet as if it were your wallet or purse – or currency. Actually, with your personal data stored, it is currency!

Which leads us to the last tip.

If Your Laptop or Mobile Device Is Stolen
> Immediately report the incident with Who/What/When/Where/How details to the local police. The probability of recovery is not that great to begin with, but it decreases significantly with time.

>Get a police report number – it will be very helpful to an arresting officer who has a suspect in custody with your stolen device.

> Keep fingers crossed, hope to get it back, but now, most importantly, protect your personal data.

>Use a tracking agent that enables you to remotely encrypt data files on the device and/or bootlock the device; This will render it useless to the thief or potential buyer, while protecting your personal data. Even if the thief decides to run a complete system wipe in an effort to defeat your tracking software, this will accomplish your goal of protecting your personal data.

> Be sure to regularly back up all sensitive data stored on the device.

I hope my comments are useful to you and your readers, and will look for any follow-up comments, to which I will reply.

Thank you,
Doug Belfiore