A Look Inside the Search for My Stolen Cell Phone

A cumbersome legal process provides less accurate information on a phone's whereabouts than a third-party application

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Last night I was robbed of my cash (but not my wallet, thankfully) and my smartphone, a Droid Incredible. At the police station, the responding officer asked if I wanted to try to track my phone. Federal law allows law enforcement agents to use mobile tracking devices to determine the location of "people or objects" if expressly authorized by a court. Intrigued, I put the wheels in motion. But once I got home, I set out on my own quest to locate the phone, downloading an app called Plan B. Billed as the ultimate tool "for slackers who lose their phone," Plan B can be installed on your phone after it's been lost.

As it turns out, the legal process is quite cumbersome. The responding officer instructed me to contact Verizon and asked for my phone's Mobile Identification Number (MIN), a unique identifier carried by each mobile unit within a wireless carrier's network. But Verizon wouldn't give me my phone's MIN and instructed me to call a police officer working on the case.

"To be frank, this may just be a giant waste of your time," said the officer, who asked not to be named. As he explained it, the actual retrieval process would be woefully slow and probably inaccurate. The officer would have to submit a report to receive a court order that would compel Verizon's law-enforcement unit to piggyback on my phone's signal using the device's MIN. The police can collect any location information that comes out of a search warrant, but Verizon performs and oversees the search process itself. Filing a warrant itself will take two or three days, cost several hundred dollars and will only work if the phone is actually on. Even then the only pieces of information the police would be able to determine is which cell tower my phone is closest to and which side of the tower it was on.

Plan B, on the other hand, was able to pinpoint my phone's location with a bit more precision. After a restless night, I woke up to find an email waiting for me, complete with latitude, longitude, and a nice map.

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Great, so now justice will be served, right? Wrong. While the officer's colleagues at the precinct were happy to have the information I provided, the address identified by Plan B pointed to a large apartment complex, not nearly definitive enough to warrant sending a few squad cars to search the place (especially, as the officer informed me, with there being nine other thefts that evening).

Why can apps like Plan B generate better location data than the cumbersome process of jacking into Verizon's network? The mobile-phone company doesn't generate or record any geolocation data independently; it simply provides the data for third party apps like Google Maps, Plan B, Foursquare, and hundreds of other apps to use, and that information wouldn't be covered in a police warrant. On the phone with the officer, I'm simply baffled.

"Your service provider can provide much more accurate information than we can," said the officer. "And your third-party applications can provide much better information than that."

Since I'm bullet-free and neither the legal route nor Plan B seem likely to get me my phone back, I'm opting for simply purchasing a replacement. Truth be told, Rob Walker might have been right: I was looking for a new phone anyway, even if I didn't know it yet.

Image: kankie/Flickr.

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Jared Keller is a journalist based in New York. He has written for Bloomberg Businessweek, Pacific Standard, and Al Jazeera America, and is a former associate editor for The Atlantic.

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