Why is it that iCloud can be successfully exploited to arrogate photos of JLaw’s intimates, but Victoria Police can’t use it to find something as common as a stolen laptop? So I wondered earlier this month, after thieves burgled my Carlton North home and stole thousands in trendy Apple products — plus an expensive video camera and lens kit.

We immediately reported the burglary to police, but my housemate Louisa realised she could use iCloud to both lock her laptop and to configure her settings such that she would be sent an e-notification — replete with GPS-tracking data — if her computer was later turned on. And then, some 20 hours later, it was. The signal pinged back to Louisa’s iPhone with a specific address in Doncaster, Melbourne, indicating the location of her stolen computer.

We thought we had a breakthrough on our hands, but police say they can’t use information from iCloud or other commercial electronics-tracking equipment to issue a warrant.

“Basically we don’t have many powers because it’s on iCloud — it’s an approximation, it’s ‘near to’ or ‘close to’, it’s not definite,” said Detective Senior Constable Jodie Hill with Yarra criminal investigation unit. “A magistrate wouldn’t give us a search warrant just on that information alone. It’s just an indication of where it could be or where it was.”

In order to get a warrant, the police “have to believe on reasonable grounds that that piece of property is going to be within that address over the next 72 hours,” said Hill. This requires “more information, more evidence” than just that provided via iCloud. What kind of evidence would be enough? “An eyewitness” — one who can assure police that the property is being held at the location iCloud suggests.

“We still follow through with anything that we get, and if someone sends us their iCloud [tracking alert] with a location or a near-location we still check it out.” Hill explained that police will “physically go to the address and have a look, see what’s there — sometimes it’s a carpark, sometimes it’s a shed, sometimes it’s a house … an alleyway, or factory.” When I pressed for more information on what police might do once they arrived at a property in these instances, Hill said “we might knock on the door … ”, but declined to comment further.

What now? Louisa and I set about trying to discover more about the people who might have robbed us. We plugged the address into various search engines, hoping to uncover incriminating news stories. We used Google Street View to check the state of the property and neighbourhood, clicking and dragging both north and south along the street, and finding mostly nondescript suburban brick homes and some fairly uninviting parkland.

“Basically we don’t have many powers because it’s on iCloud … a magistrate wouldn’t give us a search warrant just on that information alone.”

We spoke excitedly about just going out there with a large group of scary-looking mates brandishing baseball bats wrapped in barbed wire and demanding the property back. But in the end, reason prevailed. Louisa put it quite succinctly: “If we went there and something went bad, then they potentially remember where we live.”

Could we outsource the investigation instead? I spoke to Axel Foley*, who has previously worked as a private investigator in Melbourne for about three years. He says the bulk of PI work is in surveillance: “[PIs] generally get engaged by insurance companies, banks or law firms to basically get some footage to bolster their case.” These cases often centre on a person claiming either physical or mental injury.

Generally, when individuals hire a private investigator they first go to an investigative agency, which then subcontracts the work to a freelance PI, like Foley. There’s a substantial market for cases of alleged infidelity here, but Foley avoided that “cheap and nasty” area. “One of the common ones was for parents, conducting surveillance on their children when they’re out — when they go to festivals and parties and shit like that,” Foley said.

For my own interests, I was interested to know how a person could contract a PI as a go-around — an agent of circumvention when the police seemed unable to help (… say, in locating stolen computers). Foley says in these circumstances, the work often involves missing persons cases — “if they’re not missing in a way that their life’s in danger” — and certain instances of alleged fraud: “If it’s under a million dollars generally the fraud squad in the Vic Police won’t touch anything to do with that, so that’s sort of where the private [PI] sector comes into it.”

How about three stolen laptops and a video camera? Well, given that agencies tend to charge clients around $70-$110 per hour (or more, depending on the job) for investigative work — plus an additional 75c-$1 per kilometre driven, as well as the cost of any other incidentals — and the total value of our stolen goods was only about $5000, the idea of forking out more than $800 a day to retrieve them seems kind of counter-productive.

Back to square one.

There must be a non-life threatening, fiscally responsible way of getting our stuff back. We could perhaps draw some inspiration from the creative, highly entertaining, and recently successful #mitchyisadick campaign to retrieve a stolen iPhone, which used public shaming via social media to locate the perpetrator — the campaign also epitomises the genteel approach to vigilantism. It’s certainly a much better idea than, say, using iCloud to hunt down and murder the bloke who stole your kid’s iPhone.

Considering the people of VicPol’s North West Metro Region in the ND1 Division (i.e. the most Apple-loving denizens of Melbourne) experienced a 16.4% increase in residential burglaries over the 2013-14 financial year, it won’t be long before more people find themselves in a predicament similar to mine. Hill pointed out that the biggest problem was that “basic security by everyone is quite lacking … You’d be surprised how many people don’t lock their windows.” But if opportunistic thieves take advantage of those windows, will iCloud encourage hipsters to take vengeance?

*not his real name

Peter Fray

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