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Stolen MacBook Owner Logs On, Takes a Photo, Busts Thieves

By Katherine Noyes MacNewsWorld ECT News Network
May 12, 2008 2:22 PM PT

When Apple created the Back to My Mac feature on its .Mac service, it probably never envisioned it as a crime-solving tool. Yet that's just what it became last week, when the service helped the owner of a stolen MacBook recover her lost computer.

Stolen MacBook Owner Logs On, Takes a Photo, Busts Thieves

Kait Duplaga, a young Apple store employee from White Plains, N.Y., lost her MacBook to thieves in late April, when her apartment was robbed. Police were unable to find the thieves until Duplaga managed to access her stolen computer remotely using the Back to My Mac feature, photograph a man using it, and turn the photos along with identification over to police.

Two Arrests

Edmon Shahikian, 23, and Ian Frias, 20, were arrested last Wednesday as a result of Duplaga's technical know-how. Police were able to recover almost all the stolen property from the homes of the two men, who face charges of burglary and possession of stolen property. Shahikian was released on US$3,500 bail, while Frias is at the Westchester County Jail, held on $7,500 bail, The New York Times reported.

"It clearly makes our job a lot easier when the victim can take a picture of the person using the stolen property, and in this case, she even knew who it was," Daniel Jackson, deputy commissioner for the White Plains Department of Public Safety, told MacNewsWorld. "I'm assuming this technology was primarily designed as a business tool, but in this situation it certainly worked out for us."

Online, but Not Online

The burglary was originally reported on April 27, when Duplaga and her two roommates discovered that their apartment had been robbed. About $5,000 worth of electronics was stolen, including two laptops, two flat-screen TVs, two iPods, gaming consoles, DVDs and computer games, according to The Journal-News, which originally reported the story. Police found no sign of force.

After little progress solving the case had been made, last Tuesday a friend of Duplaga's called her to ask if she was online, because his computer indicated that hers was logged onto the Internet, The Journal-News reported.

Duplaga then signed onto another computer and used Back to My Mac to confirm that her stolen MacBook was, in fact, logged on, and that someone was using it to shop online. She then activated the stolen computer's camera, the newspaper said.

Smile! You're on Camera

Using the computer's PhotoBooth software, Duplaga saw just an empty chair at first. Soon afterwards, however, she was able to photograph Frias sitting in front of her stolen laptop, Jackson said.

As the camera counted down before taking the photo, Frias began to realize what was going on, he said.

"He saw the countdown and was looking at it, then he tried to block the camera," Jackson explained. "But by then it was too late, and she had already snapped the picture."

Friends of Friends

Subsequently, Duplaga was also able to retrieve photos of Shahikian using the computer after it had been stolen, Jackson explained.

Duplaga did not know the men, but one of her roommates recognized them as friends of friends who had attended a party at the apartment a few weeks before the burglary. Duplaga could then contact the police with photos and identities of the men.

"The victim clearly knew the system and the computer well," Jackson said. "It was definitely a very smart use of the technology."

Back to My Mac

Back to My Mac is part of Apple's $99.95 per year .Mac service, a suite of Web services for e-mail, photo and video sharing, Web-site hosting, backup and synchronization.

Back to My Mac lets users connect to any remote Mac running the Leopard operating system via the .Mac service. A user at work, for example, could use the feature to access a file that she left on her Leopard-based Mac at home.

Neither Duplaga nor officials from Apple could be reached for comment about the case and its use of technology to help recover stolen property.

'All About Recovery'

Having a recovery tool on a computer is not new, Rob Enderle, president and principal analyst with the Enderle Group, told MacNewsWorld. Computrace, for instance, provides management and security for laptop computers, he noted.

This case, however, may be the first time such a security system connected to a video camera has worked so successfully, he said.

"It's all about recovery," Enderle noted. "We talk about these tools, but what really matters is seeing them produce results," he said.

Unanticipated Benefits

"I'm glad to see it," Phil Leigh, a senior analyst with Inside Digital Media, told MacNewsWorld.

"I guess what it shows is that people are learning more and more about how the computer is becoming a communications appliance, and it's opening up all kinds of new possibilities," Leigh explained. "This is clearly one that wasn't anticipated, but it certainly has benefits that all of us applaud."

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