Oct 042011
 
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To Catch a Thief

IT ALL happened so fast and without the slightest apprehension. Queuing for a railway ticket at Waterloo station in London one quiet Sunday morning some years ago, your correspondent put his laptop blissfully down by his feet to get money out of his pocket. After taking his ticket from the window, he reached down for his laptop case, only to find it gone.

There was nobody lurking behind him; indeed, no-one within 20 feet or more. And certainly no thief was to be seen scurrying across the half-empty concourse with a bulky laptop bag slung over a shoulder. The shock, tinged with awe of such brazen behaviour, taught your correspondent one valuable thing: never, even for a few seconds, lose physical contact with your digital belongings—especially when their contents are worth more to you than the merchandise.

Today, if he must put a laptop or tablet down while fishing for change in a crowded place, it gets trapped between his knees or ankles. And he never, ever places a mobile phone on a counter or table in a restaurant, bar or coffee shop—as so many others seem to do the instant they sit down. Until needed, phones stay where they belong: out-of-sight and less of a distraction in a pocket. Apart from being part of basic courtesy, it is the smartest thing to do security-wise.

Left in the open, smart-phones and tablets, even more than laptops, are tempting targets for unscrupulous bystanders with sticky fingers. That was how last year the world got its first glimpse of the upcoming iPhone 4, when an Apple engineer left a prototype on the bar of a Redwood City beer garden. The two men who acquired it (later charged with theft) promptly sold the prototype of Apple’s latest must-have gadget to “Gizmodo”, a tech-blog in Silicon Valley, which instantly published the secret details for all and sundry to see.

Having been embarrassed once by such a gaffe, you might have thought that Apple would have cracked down hard on such careless behaviour. But no, a couple of months ago, another Apple employee managed to lose an unreleased iPhone 5 (due to be revealed on October 4th) in a tequila bar in San Francisco’s Mission District.

Clearly, such headline cases are merely the well-publicised tip of an iceberg of pricey portables that disappear. In America, the Federal Bureau of Investigation reckons some 600,000 laptops are stolen annually, with only 3% ever being recovered. A further 26m mobile phones go missing each year. Airports, hotels and parked cars are where most laptops vanish. Mobile phones tend to get lost in taxis, and be swiped in bars, restaurants and other public places where their owners are easily distracted. The Federal Trade Commission urges people to treat such gadgets “like cash” and keep them securely about their person or hidden out-of-sight.

Tales of stolen phones and laptops being successfully retrieved are the exception to the rule. One widely publicised case (perhaps because it was so rare) concerned a Canadian web consultant, who had a bag containing his laptop, mobile phone, health card and copies of his birth certificate lifted while on a business trip to New York. Fortunately, the owner had taken the precaution of installing an open-source tracking tool called Prey on his MacBook Pro beforehand.Several days later, back in Ottawa, the owner got a message from his stolen laptop, saying it was being used in a restaurant in the Soho district of Manhattan. The tracking software not only sent the location details, but also transmitted screen-shots of what was running on the laptop at the time. It even turned on the user-facing camera and transmitted video of the user to the owner 500 miles away.

In this case, the owner was luckier than most. He had some 12,000 followers on Twitter to call upon for help. Meanwhile, the thief made the mistake of logging onto Skype with his real name. The laptop owner saw all this happening before his eyes and tweeted the details to his followers. He also called the New York police and asked, to no avail, for help. The missing laptop and other items were recovered only when a friend, aided by a Twitter follower in New York, rushed  to the restaurant and confronted the staff with the evidence. The stolen laptop was handed over without a struggle.

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