This article originally appeared on VICE Germany
When I turn on my phone, a child stares back at me with two big brown eyes. The background photo is of a girl no older than 2 or 3, with short black hair. My phone vibrates and a few notifications in Arabic start coming in. Could this really be my phone?
Six weeks earlier, taking the train home from my brother's birthday party, I woke up at the end of the line. I had fallen asleep on the local between Bochum and Cologne and had missed my stop by 50 kilometres. My backpack was gone, and along with it my money, my cards and ID – and worst of all, my phone. My phone had the numbers of everyone I had ever deemed worthy of talking to, photos of a legendary night out in Hamburg, videos from my friend's wedding. I hadn't backed them up, and they were with a stranger now.
Nick my phone and you'll know more about me than my parents do. In the train app you'll see that I recently took two trips to Berlin, my last searches on Google Maps will show you the address of a friend's place, who my dentist is and the last 10 pubs I went to. In my text history you'll read all my drunken rants to a friend, you'll see me bitch about a coworker and about Schalke 04's last shit game. Scroll through my photos and you'll see me dressed as a clown at the Carnival in Cologne and photos of the bills that I need to pay.
But I got lucky. A month and a half after nodding off on the train and reporting the theft with the Cologne police, I received a parcel from them, containing my stolen phone. The officer I had spoken to said my phone had been found in Aachen, presumably in a backpack with other stolen goods. But looking at it, the phone didn't feel part of myself anymore. In the letter accompanying the parcel, I read that, should I find any data on the phone or memory card that wasn't mine, I should delete it. But seeing the photo of the girl and the notifications I can't read, I simply can't resist nosing through this stranger's life.
Going through the photos, I see a bunch of a man with his children, and others of the same guy posing like a boss, photographed from below. I feel a bit awkward looking at them, but quickly suppress that feeling by thinking he's brought it on himself by nicking my phone. There's a photo of the town square in Bergheim – a town some 40 kilometres west of Cologne – and a video of a small girl and an older boy in front of an information board in the train station of Cologne, getting excited over a bag of McDonalds.
I go though the apps – an Arabic sports app, a flashlight app, a game called Fighting Tiger, a ringtone app. In Facebook Messenger, I see all the chats he's sent recently – most are short and they're in German, Arabic, French, Italian and English. The guy's a linguistic genius.
There are a few chats with other young men asking if he's back in Europe, and a few with pretty blonde women. He wants to know: "You want sex?" Next question: "You want a picture of my dick?" I throw the phone on my bed, run to my kitchen cupboard and retrieve a bottle of disinfectant to clean the screen with. None of the girls he asks are interested in photos of his penis – they ignore him.
When I dig deeper into the phone's memory and access a backup of messaging app Telegram, where I find pictures of a different guy. He has a nice smile and his hair is thinning on the top of his head. He's in his early 30s and looks like small-town football coach. The backup memory I'm scrolling through is like a portal into the life of a second person. He's clearly more into memes than the first guy – I find a picture of a koala at the wheel of a car ("I'm Koalafied to Drive" it reads) and a ton pictures of cats.
There's also a screenshot of a Facebook invite to a birthday party (159 invited, 4 confirmed), a photo taken from a window in Cologne, one of a house party, one of a beach and one of a frying pan with veggies.
Less wholesome is a photo of a knife, a cut-off bit of a straw, an old phone card, a bag of coke and two lines on a mirror with a picture of Rambo on it. That same mirror appears on another photo, with two lines and some pills this time. Within a few swipes, I know everything about this guy. There's a photo of his bank card, a mention of his hometown (a small city in Westphalia), his licence plate number, his favourite places to party. I even know what his voice sounds like – friendly, his words carefully pronounced – because there are some voice messages and videos backed up.
It becomes clear there were two people involved with my phone. First, there's the guy with the kids who loves being photographed from a low angle – he doesn't seem to have stolen my phone but seems to have bought it at some point. The date stamps on his photos are more recent – a month after the theft, in August 2015. The backup data, the photos of the coke and the Rambo mirror are 6 months older – well before my phone was stolen. Those come from an SD card that's been inserted in my phone, but I have no idea how and why.
When my phone was stolen, I felt naked. Now that I have it back, I feel dirty. The lives of two strangers are completely exposed to me – why didn't I stop myself from digging into them?
"Well, that's called a coping strategy," Cologne psychotherapist Stefan Grimm tells me, when I ask him to shed some light on what I'm feeling. "You felt like your intimate sphere was invaded with the theft, and you have reversed the roles for yourself now. You turned the criminals into victims, which helps you to regain control and gives you a sense of security."
I turn off the phone and leave it in the back of one of my drawers. I don't need it anymore – I bought a new phone days after my old one was stolen. But while the phone itself might be in the back of a drawer, the pictures of those other lives linger in my head. Especially that of the cocaine aficionado, whose address I know. I could just ring him up – but what would I say? "Hi, I found your data on my phone and I now know everything about you."?
Instead, I call the prosecutor's office and the Cologne police department, to hear how my phone was found exactly. The prosecutor tells me that the first guy on my phone – whose dick pic offerings it carried – was under some kind of investigation. But the fact that I reported my phone as stolen didn't matter much for the authorities – they didn't need me as a witness, and they wouldn't tell me what they were investigating him for. Anyway, it didn't amount to anything except for the fact that some stolen stuff was retrieved. The Cologne police tells me that it's not unusual that while there might be evidence against a thief, the cost of prosecution would outweigh any sentence he would get – especially for first time offenders or small stolen goods. I don't think the Cologne police and I agree on what constitutes a "small" stolen good. My phone might not have been big, but it had my whole private life on it. And theirs.
I decide to write the two guys a message on Facebook, knowing that at least one of them might be a criminal (and a criminal who may know everything about me, at that). "Hi, I found your data on my stolen phone that was returned to me. Can you explain how it got there?" No answer from either of them. My message is probably stuck in the Other inbox of their Messenger app, where all the chats from people you don't know go. If I want to be sure they see the message, I'll have to add them as Facebook friends. But I think I've seen enough for now.