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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 🙂

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