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How a Sys Admin Tracked Down a Criminal

At PaperCut, I work a lot with Sys Admins and we swap war stories about the “challenging” tasks and significant business decisions we undertake every day. (Those important activities like helping users reset passwords and answering “PC Load Letter… What does that mean?” questions.) Wouldn’t it be cool if Sys Admins had far more exciting stories?

Last week my boss was doing his rounds and asking what I’d been up to. I could have answered the normal stuff, but why pass up an opportunity to share a cool story? I replied, “I’m using my sys admin skills to fight crime and catch criminals.”

Let me back up a bit…

Em and her phone!

Em and her phone!

In July 2011 my fiancé’s iPhone was
stolen from her while she was working. The overworked local police shared that this was a common occurrence and as such it didn’t even warrant a report to be filed. I realized quickly that I had to take matters into my own hands.

As I helped my fiancé recover from that feeling of helplessness that accompanies a lost phone, I remembered that I had installed Google Latitude a couple of weeks before.  It was a brand new app at the time and – like any sys admin – I’d wanted to check it out. Moving quickly, I checked the app only to find the ‘thief’ was driving down the highway merely 2km away from the scene of the crime. It was time to turn on my sys admin research brain and get into detective mode.

Google Latitude Map

Here’s a preview of the accuracy. The blue circle is the “approximate” location.

After 7 days of systematic tracking I discovered where they worked, where they slept at night, what route they took home, and where they went to eat.

But I still needed to step up the surveillance a notch.

I created an Overclockers Australia thread (popular tech forum), which shared live updates of the detective work I was doing. Now Overclockers were becoming part of the search and helping me along the way.

I found pages online matching the address that helped identify the homeowner’s name. With the help of Google Maps I was now armed with aerial pictures and street views of his house. Now I had everything I needed to launch a full-scale assault.  Back to visit the police!

This time I presented my evidence and demanded action.  But while online tracking was a natural extension of my day-to-day, tracking technology on such small but powerful mobile phones was very new to the police staff.  Before anything else could be done I had to conduct a quick lesson to a senior police officer on how Google Latitude worked and how I uncovered this information!

One week later, we received a call.  It brought a smile to my face when the police revealed they had recovered our phone! They had gone to the property late one night with my information and a search warrant.

In my head it played out like this:  The heavily armed police – dressed in full riot gear – quietly approached the house just after dusk, kicked the door down, threw in a couple of stun grenades and smoke bombs, let the dogs loose and declared that an extremely experienced sys admin called Josh had foiled their villainous theft ring and led directly to their demise.

I’m sure the reality was less elaborate but that’s the story I’ll be sharing with my Guild 🙂


  • Brock

    And he woulda got away with it too if it wasn’t for you meddling sys admins!

    Good read!

  • Kris

    Great story. I love it when the good guys win. My friend left his phone in a Taxi. The Taxi driver kept the phone (did not turn it in or report). A few days later he turned it on in his home causing the Find My iPhone app to ping in the location. The house was only 10 minutes drive away. He went over, knocked on the guys door and asked for the phone back… “You should have saw the look on the guys face when it dawned on him that he’s been tracked down!”

  • Jose

    Something happen to me twice now. I have a family plan and Im the one in charge of the lines. The worse was when my cousins girl friend (age16) was mugged. A HTC Touch was taken and I was shocked the police would not do a thing. So I used gps to keep track of it and parked in front of their home and followed him to work. After a week he gave the phone to his girl friend and they were using it and making calls. I asked the police again and they said they had better things to do then to recover a phone.

    So I just walked to his home and rang the bell (I had two friends with me). His mother open the door and I explained what happen. She had him run to get the phone and apologized. She beg me not to file charges and i agreed if her son when to counseling and community service.

    In my experience about 50% of the time they try to keep the phone even if you contact them.

  • eman

    I DON’T THINK that I want to change my mind either