How police tracked down Steve Jobs' stolen iPads

Digital breadcrumbs left by the iMac and iPad computers were key in tracking them down

The digital breadcrumbs left behind when people use Internet-connected gadgets are what led California investigators to recover iMacs, iPads and other items stolen from the home of the late Apple CEO Steve Jobs.

Based on the police report, obtained by the IDG News Service, here's how they did it.

The burglary took place while the Jobs family home, in a leafy and quiet area of Palo Alto, was being renovated and was unoccupied. Sometime between the construction crew leaving the site at 5:00 p.m. on Tuesday, July 17, and arriving just before 8:00 a.m. the next morning, someone entered the house and stole several personal effects and Apple gadgets.

Within several days, the Palo Alto Police Department had enlisted the help of the Rapid Enforcement Allied Computer Team, a San Jose-based organization formed by local, state and federal law enforcement agencies that specializes in computer-related crimes. Local police wanted assistance tracking down the Apple computers and iPads that were reported stolen from the house.

The REACT team reached out to Apple's own investigators, who had access to the company's computer systems, and supplied them with a list of serial numbers of stolen devices. Apple was quickly able to determine that one of the stolen iPads had connected with Apple's servers soon after the burglary.

The iPad was trying to reinstall its operating system and was recorded connecting from an AT&T U-verse Internet IP address from 7:22 a.m. to 7:31 a.m. on July 18, the morning after the house was broken into and minutes before the returning construction workers would discover the break-in.

Upon searching logs for the IP address, Apple investigators discovered a different iPad had connected from the same address at 8:10 a.m. on July 17, before the burglary took place, and again at 1:56 p.m. on July 20, after the break-in was reported to police. That iPad wasn't suspected stolen, but the iTunes account information gave investigators a lead.

Tied with information from AT&T U-verse about the Internet connection, investigators were led to an address in Alameda, on the east side of San Francisco Bay. At that address Kariem McFarlin, the suspect in the case, was paying for AT&T Internet service, according to investigators.

While police were building their case there was more activity on the stolen devices.

Over a five day period, Apple investigators recorded activity on McFarlin's iTunes account linked to the iPad that originally connected to restore its operating system, a second iPad stolen from the Jobs' home and an iMac computer that was also missing, according to police. One of the iPads later connected from a Comcast Internet connection in Alameda using a different iTunes account.

Investigators say they searched McFarlin's Facebook page and discovered their suspect and the owner of this new iTunes account were friends.

Before investigators made their move there was one final check that had to be made.

They traveled to the Alameda address where McFarlin lived and swept the immediate area for Wi-Fi signals.

Police wanted to determine whether there was an open Wi-Fi network that perhaps was being used without the owners' permission. If the AT&T Internet address was tied to an unsecured connection, it could complicate the case because anyone could have used it. Finding only secured Wi-Fi signals, investigators could argue it was being used by the person paying the bill or those with permission.

On August 2 police entered McFarlin's apartment and discovered one of the stolen iMac computers on his kitchen table, according to the police report.

The other iPads were recovered from people associated with McFarlin, the police say.

To get rid of stolen jewelry, McFarlin told police, he had Googled selling jewelry and found a dealer in Pennsylvania. Police say they found email messages in McFarlin's phone indicating the sale and were able to recover the stolen jewelry by contacting the broker.

In a subsequent interview with McFarlin, police say he admitted breaking into the home by climbing over the builders' scaffolding and finding a spare key for the house in the garage. He said he stole two iMacs, three iPads, three iPods, one Apple TV, a diamond necklace and earrings, and several other items.

In explaining his actions, investigators say McFarlin said he had money problems and had taken to breaking into houses. He wrote a single page letter of apology admitting he had burglarized Steve Jobs' house and stolen property, but had done so because he was desperate.

McFarlin is due in court on Monday.

Martyn Williams covers mobile telecoms, Silicon Valley and general technology breaking news for The IDG News Service. Follow Martyn on Twitter at @martyn_williams. Martyn's e-mail address is martyn_williams@idg.com

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Martyn Williams

IDG News Service
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