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How to catch a burglar with Bluetooth

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The Tuesday after Memorial Day weekend, Roambee co-founder Vidya Subramanian got to work at 7AM to find his company’s office in Santa Clara, California, ransacked. The burglars had made such a mess that it was hard to tell at first what was missing. There were monitors and other computer equipment gone, and the entire operations room had been tossed for anything that might fetch a good resale price.

“They’d jimmied the lock on just this one room,” Subramanian says. “It’s the room where we charge our devices, and needless to say there’s computer equipment everywhere, so they thought it was a good place to steal stuff.”

It seemed like a routine burglary, a midnight heist that left no obvious leads. Only one in eight burglaries are cleared nationwide, and there was no reason to think Subramanian’s office would be one of the lucky ones — until he took a closer look at what the burglar had taken. Two of the missing crates were full of his company’s product: a device about the size of two cigarette packs, used to monitor GPS, Bluetooth, and altitude signals. Typically, they’re slipped into sensitive shipments like a pallet of pharmaceuticals, ensuring it isn’t tampered with as it moves from port to port. Subramanian thinks the intruders must have mistaken the bright yellow gadget for an external phone charger, not realizing what the device really did.

The burglars had stolen two boxes full of tracking devices. “At that point,” Subramanian says, “the light bulb went off, and we went into recover mode.”

The devices were still powered on and communicating with the home server at intervals. Roambee was able to tighten up that interval remotely — from once an hour to every five minutes — and get two detectives to track down the new lead. With a box of active homing devices leading the way, it was only a matter of time before they tracked down the haul.

It’s a frightening story for would-be thieves, but still a rare one. Nearly all electronic devices are now inextricably tied to the internet, often broadcasting a continuous and traceable electromagnetic trail — but the overall rate of electronics theft hasn’t declined much as a result. Phone-tracking systems on iOS and Android have made far riskier to steal smartphones — and theft attempts have plummeted as a result — but so far, smartphones are the exception. And there’s no equivalent drop in the theft of laptops and other electronics.

Similar anti-theft measures do exist for laptops, but they’re not as precise as trackers like Roambee or as widely adopted as phone-tracking features. Laptop-tracking programs usually rely on the internet, and only work when the computer is connected. That makes the signal more erratic, and gives criminals a lot more time to wipe the device. Even when it works, it only leads police to an IP address, which can be difficult to translate into a physical location.

There are also more reliable methods that have yet to gain traction. A tracking company called Latent Wireless targets laptops’ Wi-Fi signatures, creating a unique fingerprint based on the Wi-Fi networks stored on a given device. A computer’s Wi-Fi system is constantly sending out that list, trying to connect to familiar networks, which makes it easy for Latent to sense if a nearby computer is using a given signature. Once the right signature has been located, a directional antenna can be used to sniff out the source of the signal, a process that’s far more accurate than internet-based trackers. But so far, such systems haven’t gotten much traction with users or manufacturers.

Getting a specific location is particularly important for legal reasons. For police, most of this information is used as raw material for a warrant — convincing a judge that there’s probable cause to search a particular location for the stolen device. Those warrants require as specific a location as possible, which usually means pinning down a particular locker or storage unit, rather than just a particular block or building. In those cases, even consumer-grade GPS can fall short.

In Roambee’s case, the GPS unit led police to a storage facility in Oakland, California, where the Bluetooth signal was enough to point to a specific storage unit. When police looks inside, they found stolen gear from Roambee’s office and other burglaries dating as far back as January. Wednesday evening, Subramanian got a call from detectives saying everything but a few monitors had been recovered.

“They were super excited,” he says. “How often do you get somebody who steals a tracker?”

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