Undercover for the iPhone: Detection After Loss

By Graham K. Rogers



I had one of those emails during Songkran that I dread and always feel helpless about: someone in the Northeast had had a Mac stolen and was asking for suggestions. I helped circulate the serial number, but that was all I could do then. I also gave advice for the future.

Hundreds of computers, phones and iPods are stolen each week. I am concerned about Mac users of course, but PC owners are also at risk. It saddens me to see so many on both platforms who do not use passwords or even properly secure accounts. I have been told this is for convenience, but what is more inconvenient than a stolen computer and lost data? I also urge Mac users to use the Firmware Password Utility which is on the original install disks. Lock it up.

Data may be worth more than the computer; and other writers in Database have suggested strongly that backing up data is a must, but still we are contacted by people who have failed to do this. Apple's Time Machine makes this easy, but it is not my sole backup system.

undercover While I was seeking information for the loser in Esaan, I looked at the website for Undercover: an application that still tracks my stolen PowerBook. I was surprised to see that Orbicule had just released an iPhone app. It also works on the iPod touch.

These smaller devices are even easier to lose than computers. I have lost mobile phones which were less expensive and with Apple's iSync I was up and running within minutes of buying a replacement, but it would be nicer to get the device back.

As soon as I saw that an Undercover app was available on the iTunes App Store, I downloaded it and installed it on my iPod touch. When active, it sends back location data, including IP numbers. Using this data, the device could be tracked. It cost $4.99 (180 baht) and it is designed to look like a game to someone not familiar with the app if the iPhone has been stolen. If it is able to track the location then this information is shown on a Google map. To make the app accessible, the pass number feature must be turned off and some may find this too much of a trade-off.

When I first opened the app on my iPod touch I entered an email address and password to create an account. The app also asks for permission to access location data: many apps use this. The iPhone uses GPS, but this is not always accessible. If the thief is using the device inside a mall, for example, the layers of concrete will block the signal from the satellite. Apple also equips the iPhone with the ability to find location data using the Skyhook service. Location data is also obtained with the iPod touch by access to Skyhook locations.

touch location

If Undercover is launched on an offline device (no 3G or Wi-Fi), its location is saved. As soon as the device goes online and Undercover is launched again, saved locations will be transmitted. This data can be viewed online. However, if the device cannot find a location service, it uses the last data. In Thailand therefore this is less useful as there are so few locations the iPod touch is able to recognise. The IP number is recorded correctly and this can be retrieved, so some tracking can take place.

Places like Chicago, New York and the Bay Area are almost totally covered as are many smaller cities in the U.S. it is the same in the UK with London and major areas of population covered; while the rest of Europe is similarly well-covered. Do the same search for Bangkok and there are few areas shown on the map used.

There are a few Skyhook locations in Bangkok and the surrounding areas but far too few and I would suggest to local users that the more entered, the better location services would be. I have also suggested this to True who operate many of the wifi antennas in the central area, but had no reply to my query by the time I wrote this despite leaving email and phone contact details within the message.

True locations

If one examines True's map of connection points, there are antennas all over Bangkok: even in the comparatively remote suburban area I reside. If these were entered into the Skyhook database, there would be an instant improvement in effectiveness of location services on the iPhone and the iPod touch: not just for Undercover.

True may be letting its customers down by relying solely on the GPS and not bothering to use all the features that the iPhone will allow. I have written to the company suggesting that this be implemented, but at the time of writing there has been no reply. Users locally can link their own wifi to Skyhook: the more there are, the more accurate it is.


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