If 10 Berkeley Cops Can't Get the Chief's Son's Phone Back, Your Vigilante Recovery Won't Work Either

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The iPhone comes with this great little app called "Find My Phone." Launch it from a computer and the software will use your phone's built-in communication tools to locate the device on a map. This is great if you've simply misplaced your phone. But what if it's actually been stolen?

Our own Jared Keller discovered the perils of tracking down your phone. He knew roughly where it was -- an apartment building in northeast Washington, DC -- but had no idea how to get it back. The Washington police were not interested in going door to door in a big apartment building looking for some kid's phone, and besides nine other cell phones had been stolen on the same night.


The problem isn't specific to Keller, though. It's general. If someone or someones are holding a piece of your stolen property, how are you actually going to retrieve it? The situation holds the potential for confrontation, violent or otherwise, and the resolution of the phone tracking isn't so precise that you can be 100% for sure where the device is.

This is true even if you happen to be the police chief of a mid-size American city like Berkeley, California. The Oakland Tribune reports that Berkeley's police chief sent 10 police officers to track down his son's iPhone, after the kid had it jacked from his gym locker at Berkeley High. Civic discussions aside, the real kicker in the story is that even with all those cops swarming around San Pablo and 55th (a couple miles from where I'm sitting), they were not able to locate the phone! So, they had an active tracking signal and 10 cops and still came up empty handed.

The boy alerted his father and Meehan pulled out his own cell phone and showed a property crimes detective sergeant the real time movement of the stolen phone.

Given the active signal of the stolen phone, the detective sergeant took his team to try to locate it. As the signal was moving into the city of Oakland, the detective sergeant called the drug task force to ask for some additional assistance and members of that team offered to help, said Sgt. Mary Kusmiss, department spokeswoman..

The four sergeants followed the signal to the area of 55th and San Pablo avenues in North Oakland, where they contacted residents at several homes looking for the phone. It was never located.

If 10 cops who know a neighborhood can't find an iPhone that's broadcasting its location, that shouldn't give you a lot of confidence in your own vigilante recovery of a stolen iProduct. Just saying. Consider this a PSA: just buy a new phone.

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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of TheAtlantic.com. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science website in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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