An iPhone user using what looks like tracking technology (Photo [via Flickr](http://Tracking apps can be as responsible for danger as they can security. ))
On Tuesday, Glasgow High Court saw Derek Grant admit to culpable homicide after he attacked a man who stole his son’s iPhone. That son, 20-year-old Jordan, was mugged by Patrick Bradley, 29, before using the “Find My iPhone” app to track him down. However, when Bradley didn’t want to give the phone back, the situation turned violent; Derek was stabbed in the eye, then stabbed Bradley repeatedly “in self-defence”. Taken to a local hospital, Bradley suffered a cardiac arrest and died.
The case has stirred up plenty of disbelief: is a replaceable block of plastic and glass really worth killing someone or risking your life over? It also raises an interesting point about phone location apps: are they a conduit for vigilante justice – in a similar case, a 52-year-old baseball umpire was charged with assault for attacking a man he’d traced with phone tracking software – or are most people rational enough to hand responsibility over to the police once they’ve been robbed at knifepoint?
Either way, it all ties in with that other preserve of tech-based petty crime stories: the inept criminal caught out by whatever tracking or security software the victim has in place.
Whether they’re fat fetishists caught on a stolen laptop’s webcam, or people who – despite the litany of articles and ads reminding the world that The Cloud is definitely now A Thing – manage to upload incriminating selfies from a stolen phone, it seems like we’re fed stories about luddite lawbreakers every other week. In fact, that narrative is so familiar that it’s now attracting parodies; this week a video surfaced that appeared to depict a stolen Google Glass recording the thief’s day through an app called LiveLens. It wasn’t; it was just an online marketing ploy for a piece of Google software.
There is, of course, an upside to these kind of phone apps in the UK, many of which aim to empower the vulnerable in a country where it’s illegal to carry pepper spray or, for those with a complete lack of foresight, a concealed weapon. Services like Hollaback, Circle of Six, Kitestring and ASPIRE News offer backup for people who find themselves in worst-case situations. But the point of these apps is to alert the emergency services, not to turn us all into civilian coppers.
So where does this enthusiasm for bypassing the police stem from? Is it a case-by-case personal choice, or something connected to wider societal causes? You could argue that the rise of the deep web – removing the public one step from the authorities, away from the street and wrapped up in the safety blanket of online anonymity – explains it. That, between the Silicon Valley libertarians and advancements like 3D-printed guns, you can hardly blame people for believing that the internet and its associated devices are a law unto themselves.
It also coincides with an increase of keyboard activism – social media users convincing themselves that a mouse click will help jail the commander of a child army, or save 200 abducted schoolgirls from some militants hidden in a vast, impervious forest. We were told the London riots were caused and pretty much resolved through social media; and if the internet can handle hundreds of marauding teenagers ransacking Tesco Metros, you can probably handle an iPhone thief.
In a data economy, where app permission settings doll out our Likes and locations – and hackers can feasibly access devices in our homes – there’s comfort to be taken in turning surveillance on itself and using it to protect ourselves. But in the wrong circumstances, a phone – and the software it contains – can do the exact opposite, leaving us open to danger.
Perhaps it’s about knowing the limits of phone apps themselves, or just questioning the logic of those who design them. One app, Safesnapp, for instance, advises users to take their phone out at the point of attack and try to photograph the aggressor. In their promotional video, the would-be attacker is scared away.
In realoty, it’s hard to imagine the situation unfolding in quite the same way.
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