A Twitter crime thriller, and why laptop tracking could save you some heartache

I got hooked tonight on an amazing Twitter drama, watching in real time as Sean Power live Tweeted about his attempts to recover his stolen laptop from a guy in a bar in New York City. Using software called Prey, Power was able to track the whereabouts of the stolen laptop, even capturing photos of the person using his machine.

It’s been fascinating to watch the drama play out — even more so because I just returned from the MIT Northwest Startup Demo event where the top award went to a company called ActiveTrak whose GadgetTrak software works like Prey.

Obviously — in this mobile device-centric world — there’s a real need to keep track of your gadgets if they are lost or stolen.

ActiveTrak CEO Ken Westin accepts the award at the MIT Startup Demo event from Steve Johnson

ActiveTrak CEO Ken Westin certainly thinks so, noting in his award-winning pitch tonight that the software has been used to recover all sorts of devices and even break up an organized crime ring in Oregon.

“We are not just a technology company, I think we are super heroes,” Westin said during his pitch.

The technology works with both mobile phones and laptops, with Westin saying that they have a 90 percent recovery rate of stolen laptops.

“Even on a laptop that doesn’t have GPS, we can actually get location of that device within 10 to 20 meters so we don’t need GPS,” said Westin, adding that the GadgetTrak software is being embedded in a number of devices.

Statistically, Westin said that burglary is typically the hardest crime for police to solve because of the lack of evidence.

“We provide them with the evidence. And now the police love us,” said Westin. “And once they see the evidence we provide — it doesn’t get better than a photo and a location of the suspect.”

ActiveTrak, which raised some cash last year, has about 150,000 paying customers.  The Portland startup just landed a deal with a South African carrier which plans to embed the ActiveTrak technology on every device they sell, with Westin saying the deal could lead to about three million units.

Fellow judge Bill Bryant of Draper Fisher Jurvetson asked a good question: Could this technology be used to track car location?

Westin said that’s a possibility, as long as the “price is right.”

“We are a company of engineers, so we can actually do a lot of custom work,” he said. “So, let’s say a car manufacturer came to us and they wanted a solution like this, we can work with them to find a way to embed it.”

And how did that laptop drama play out tonight? Well, I won’t spoil it for you, but turns out there’s a happy ending.

John Cook is co-founder of GeekWire. Follow on Twitter: @geekwirenews and Facebook.

  • Guest

    Remember that all men are innocent until proven guilty in a court of law, no matter what Twitter says.

  • http://www.intrinsicstrategy.com FrankCatalano

    Amazing.  He actually got it back from the guy he remotely found using it in a bar, tweeting at the end “@SeanPower:twitterOH. And yes, my birth certificates & ID are in there. Looks like everything is intact.”

    • johnhcook

      Yeah, this drama from @seanpower:twitter has been one of the more interesting things I’ve followed on Twitter. Real-time storytelling with a few high-tech twists. 

      Amazing that the NYPD wouldn’t respond to the situation because he had not filed a report.  

      • http://www.facebook.com/gadgettrak Ken Westin

        They need a police report to be filed to ensure the device is really stolen and to have documented facts regarding the case and the device. 

    • Guest

      Wow. I hope at-Sean doesn’t work in the security industry. What kind of moron stores his most intimate personal documents unencrypted on a portable device?

      • http://www.intrinsicstrategy.com FrankCatalano

        It was difficult to tell from the tweets whether the documents were on his laptop as files, or whether they were in the same laptop bag as the laptop.

        • Guest

          And I suppose the latter makes it better? Besides the President, what kind of moron carries his own birth certificate around in his laptop bag?

          • http://www.intrinsicstrategy.com FrankCatalano

            Don’t confuse explanation with endorsement.

          • Guest

            I don’t, Frank. I also don’t confuse speculation with information.

          • Guest

            I don’t, Frank. I also don’t confuse speculation with information.

          • http://www.intrinsicstrategy.com FrankCatalano

            As I said, difficult to tell — no speculation there, just information about what he tweeted. Personally, I’d never carry all those sensitive documents with me without having some way to secure them, digitally or otherwise.

          • http://www.intrinsicstrategy.com FrankCatalano

            As I said, difficult to tell — no speculation there, just information about what he tweeted. Personally, I’d never carry all those sensitive documents with me without having some way to secure them, digitally or otherwise.

  • http://www.facebook.com/gadgettrak Ken Westin

     Ken Westin here from ActiveTrak. Thank you for the mention. So with Sean Power case, this was handled irresponsibly. Police should be involved in the recovery of the device, they do need a police report, but this should have been filed immediately when the device was stolen or missing. Someone could have been hurt or killed here, you need to let police to their job when it comes to recovering stolen property. This case sets a really bad example of how people should go about recovering stolen devices. 

    The second issue is that they uploaded the suspects photo, his name, his business etc, without knowing the facts. He may not be the thief, he may have purchased the laptop at a pawn shop or on Craigslist, yet due to the irresponsible actions of a few he is now guilty regardless of any actual court findings. 

    Police need to be involved in these cases to protect the victim and the suspects.

    • Guest

      Have to agree with you there, Ken. Men of the Internet still celebrate this sort of vigilantism and mob justice, but when persons take the law into their own hands, they risk becoming criminals themselves.

      I support the rule of law, not the rule of the Twitter mob. Thousands of anonymous supporters do not make unlawful acts acceptable.

      • http://www.intrinsicstrategy.com FrankCatalano

        It’s interesting to read the entire stream of tweets. From what I could tell while following this last night, he actively asked people not to get directly involved (a request his detailed play-by-play actually worked against), and that he tried to file a police report but he was traveling, and he said NYPD only would accept a report filed in person.

        • Guest

          This Sean character strikes me as quite the attention whore. In addition to abhorrent behaviour about security (storing digitised identification unidentified) and encouraging vigilantism (posting photos of suspects and half-heartedly asking men not to go after them), he’s now doing a victory lap pretending that his software did the work of the police.

          Honestly, I hope Sean carries a firearm. Either that or I hope he can tweet “omg im being #mugged #help #fb” before the knife pierces his flesh.

          • Guest

            …unencrypted, not unidentified. Sorry, I really seanpowered that word.

        • http://www.facebook.com/gadgettrak Ken Westin

          He also uploaded the photos and other information, so there is some accountability there.  He could have had a relative file the police report on his behalf.

    • johnhcook

      You make some great points about getting police involved once the laptop is stolen and tracked down. @seanpower:twitter    didn’t want people who went to the bar on his behalf to confront the suspect. I realize that a police report needs to be filed, but it seems a bit bureaucratic too. 

      If I saw someone steal my bike from a restaurant and ride it down the street, would the police say I needed a police report to be filed first? Software like yours and that of Prey seems to be those “eyes” on the property. I understand it is tough for police to respond to every theft, but I was disappointed during the drama that NYPD didn’t react when Sean Power tried to get them involved. 

      I think you are right about not sharing the personal information of the person on the other end. (I was thinking that all along as the story played out — wondering if it was the actual thief or not).Thanks Ken. Nice pitch last night, and congrats on the big win.  

    • http://www.jrotech.com/ Jeff Rodenburg

      I’m not surprised how this was handled by Sean Power. The software he had installed was very empowering — pictures, location, screenshots, etc. The police were of absolutely no help. Who wouldn’t be driven to take some action in that situation?

      Specifically to the second issue (suspect privacy), this guy was focused on getting his device back — prosecution of the offense was really not top-of-mind. While privacy issues and innocent-until-proven-guilty are all true, most of us aren’t mentally equipped to deal with that in the heat of the moment — we just want our damn device back.

      The Sean Power / Twitter along scenario really just looks like the digital equivalent of people in my neighborhood posting flyers on walls and poles about their missing cat. I have something’s that missing, and I’ve got pictures, lat/long locations and timestamps at my disposal. Given the information, people are going to distribute that info as effectively as possible in hopes of getting their item returned.

  • Anonymous

    Should be interesting to see how that turns out. Wow.
    http://www.anon-toolz.se.tc

  • http://flickr.com/kurakensama Darth Kraken

    Wow, the story hero is Prey and the interviewed is ActiveTrack. If you want to talk with the man who created Prey, @tomaspollak 

  • http://www.hawaiiweblog.com hawaii

    Here’s @seanpower:twitter’s Twitter stream, with inline photos and replies, in chronological order via @storify:twitter: http://j.mp/preycaught