When David Pogue's iPhone was stolen, he got it back using Apple's application called Find My iPhone. The thief was unaware that possession of the phone marked his location.
Retrieval of the stolen phone wasn't completely simple. Sure, the app gave Pogue a map that pinpointed the house where the thief lived but that was hundreds of kilometres away. At first, Pogue tried persuasion. He sent messages to his phone "reward if found" with no response from the thief.
In frustration, Pogue, a writer for Scientific American magazine, posted a note on Twitter asking his 1.4 million followers to help track down his phone. His tweet included a map locating the thief's house. Soon the hi-tech treasure hunt was on. Eventually local police descended on the surprised thief's home and the phone was recovered.
If it weren't for nagging legal issues, automatic location of phones would seem like a good idea. Amanda Ladas of Surrey has a problem with it. She is suing Apple Inc. in B.C. Supreme Court for the very feature that made recovery of Pogue's iPhone possible. She alleges that "Apple has violated privacy and security rights" by storing her location in her phone.
Were the thief's privacy rights also violated? Or are rights lost the moment a crime is committed? And if so, which rights are lost?
This newspaper regularly posts pictures of people wanted by the police. Few would claim those pictures to be a violation of privacy. But what if the location of suspects were also posted, including detailed maps? This seems to go too far.
Location invites vigilantism. I can imagine hordes of indignant citizens descending on a criminal like crows on a half-eaten bag of French fries.
Some of Pogue's readers thought it was unfair too. "Are there to be ANY limits in this country?" wrote one reader. "Mr. Pogue . . . not only . . . crowd-sourced instant 'deputies,' giving detailed maps of the device's location but got the police to go to that location. That location is someone's home. What's the presumption of privacy there?"
Thieves leave all kinds of personal information at the scene of a crime: fingerprints, fibers and DNA. Is location going too far?
If it's a question of fairness, maybe we should publish just enough information about thieves to make capture possible but not so much that they don't have a fighting chance. Something like deer-hunting with a bow instead of a rifle. The odds still favour the hunter but the process seems fairer.
Or maybe it's acceptable for police to post information but not private citizens such as Pogue. Crowd-sourced justice tends to turn ordinary citizens into modern equivalents of lynch mobs.
The erosion of privacy is not just the concern of criminals. We all give up elements of our privacy in the pursuit of crime. We sit unsmiling for passport and driver's license photos so that our biometrics can be scanned into computers. We suffer shoeless and hapless at the indignity of virtual strip-searches at airports, all in the name of rooting out terrorists.
To level the playing field, maybe everyone, not just iPhone users, should carry GPS locators so we all can be found at any time. Or maybe there is a limit to how much privacy we should give up.
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