If you were awake at 3.50am UK time, on Twitter and following author and speaker Sean Power, you'd have got more than the odd comment about tech. Instead, a decidedly geeky crime caper played out in nail-biting 140-character increments. Power found tracking software Prey ("I started using it about six months ago and never really thought about it until I needed it—and even then, it took me a while to remember!") had started firing pictures of his laptop's screen, location and user to him across the internet. The snag: said user wasn't him and Power was at the time a long way from home—and his laptop.
The story moved at pace (an easy-to-follow overview is online, courtesy of Brandon Ballenger). The laptop thief started using Skype and Gmail, providing Power with his name, address and even bank details. Twitter followers discovered the guy was co-owner of a bar the laptop was then residing in and suggested forming a 'geek squad'; Power tried to talk people down and get the police to deal with everything, but then found the police wouldn't budge because Power "didn't file a report", which he'd need to do in person. Meanwhile, a mysterious girl in a purple sarong and author Nick Reese showed up at the bar and managed to retrieve the laptop (Reese and the girl feature in a video about the incident on Reese's website).
The incident is another in a long line of cases where a combination of internet tracking and social media have enabled people to get their property back when law enforcement is otherwise engaged. Power told us: "In social media, you are never alone. In the web, you are always monitored—incidentally, my co-author and I wrote a book about this for O‘Reilly. This example is simply a very physically visible symptom of 'findability'."
Regarding the intervention itself, Power told us he had mixed feelings about what went down: "I was completely against the idea of direct intervention from the beginning but am eternally grateful for the help [Reese and purple-sarong girl] provided. And Reese is four days new to New York City. How cool is that?" He added, though, that his sole piece of advice for if you ever find yourself in such circumstances is simply "call the cops and let them take care of it".