Find My Mac both useful and frustrating for law enforcement

The service is often not accurate enough to get someone's stolen device back, Dutch police said

Find My Mac can be used to show the location of a stolen Mac, but the service often does not provide enough evidence to obtain a search warrant and get the stolen device back to its rightful owner, the Dutch police said on Monday.

Find My Mac is a free service for Apple users that helps them to approximate the location of a missing device on a map using iCloud. The same service is also available for missing iPhones, iPads and iPod touch devices. Apple's finding services can also be used to play a sound, display a message, remotely lock a device or erase all the data on it.

The devices broadcast their location if they are connected to the Internet via a mobile or Wi-Fi network. If a Mac is connected to the Internet only by an Ethernet cable, Find My Mac will not be able to locate the device, according to Apple.

But even if a stolen Mac can be located, this information is not always very useful to law enforcement.

Last Friday night, an iMac got stolen together with laptops and peripheral equipment from Rotterdam-based Isolease, said Corine van den Houten, founder of the company, on Monday. Isolease is a consulting service specializing in regulations and standards compliance.

She used Find My Mac to see if she could track down her computer and a dot appeared on a map locating the device in one of the western suburbs of Amsterdam, and she informed the police. "I told them it was pretty clear where my Mac was," she said, adding that as far as she was concerned that meant that her stuff was basically for grabs. However, the police told her they couldn't do anything for her based on that information.

"If the location was given with an address and house number we could probably get a warrant to search the house," Patricia Wessels, spokeswoman for the Rotterdam-Rijnmond police said. Find My Mac shows the approximate location, and while the dot on the map provides a nice clue, it is not precise enough, especially in densely populated areas, Wessels said.

"We are not allowed to just start searching 300 homes," said Wessels, who added that searching someone's home is a far-reaching measure to take. In this case Van den Houten's iMac appears to be in an apartment building, which makes it more difficult to determine where the device actually is, said Wessels.

"We know that this is frustrating, especially for the owner," but there are rules attached to police investigations, Wessels said. However, the police will certainly use the Find My Mac information in their ongoing investigation, she added.

There are cases, though, where Apple's location services are very helpful. Hackney's Robbery Squad of the London Metropolitan Police Service (MPS), for instance, strongly recommends owners of Apple products to install the application, it said in March last year. The squad has successfully used the app to trace stolen phones, and on one occasion located a stolen device within the hour of the offence being reported.

When someone got robbed in a tube station, the victim logged into his iCloud account on an officer's iPhone. The phone picked up a signal and officers were able to follow the signal, arresting a suspect after he was identified, recovering the stolen iPhone, the MPS said.

The MPS was also able to use the app to successfully return a stolen Mac to its owner, it said. In this case, the victim's computer got stolen when he was walking down the street. Officers used their mobile phones to track the property which was found at ten-minute walk nearby. The suspect was located, arrested and later charged with robbery, the MPS said.

"If in the unlikely event you are a victim of crime, this app can greatly enhance the chances of us recovering your property and arresting the perpetrator," Collin Hill, from the MPS's Hackney's Robbery Squad, said at the time.

An MPS spokeswoman could not say on Monday whether the number of recovered stolen Apple devices has risen since then. The MPS does not gather specific statistics about this, she said.

Using location-detection services like Apple's can cause problems too, however. A 59-year-old retiree in North Las Vegas said he was wrongly accused of several phone robberies during the past two years when a glitch in a tracking service from Sprint led owners to his door, the Las Vegas Review Journal reported in January. This caused many angry people to turn up at his house, demanding their phones back, and has forced him to put a sign on the front of his house telling people he does not have their phones, according to the report.

Meanwhile, Van den Houten's iMac was taken offline by the robbers and she can't see its current location on the map anymore, she said. But she hoped that the machine will come online again. Before it was taken offline though, she set her Mac up to display a message to the robbers: "In as many languages as possible it says: Dirty work-shy scum."

Loek is Amsterdam Correspondent and covers online privacy, intellectual property, open-source and online payment issues for the IDG News Service. Follow him on Twitter at @loekessers or email tips and comments to loek_essers@idg.com

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