My iPhone goes walkabout [and then comes home]

Last week we went to Stockholm, Sweden to attend a family wedding. We traveled a few days early in order to take a mini-vacation and see some friends who live in the city. Although I have been to Sweden many times on business, I have not really had a lot of recreational time in the city and this was my chance. We got a good deal on flights and accommodation and actually stayed in a hotel that I have commonly used on business trips, which felt slightly odd, but was familiar and convenient.

One aspect of the trip became more of an adventure than we had expected …

On Thursday, we set out for the day to do a little exploring, with a plan to end up at a particular museum. We were using public transportation and had the necessary passes to just get on and off as we needed. By the end of the day we had used overground and underground trains, a tram, a bus and a boat! Although the transportation system is integrated and mostly well designed, we inevitably went astray and became a little lost. But we were OK with that, as we had no particular schedule. Eventually, we stepped off the tram outside the museum that we planned to visit. As we prepared to cross the street, I had a shock …

I normally take care with where I keep my phone and other valuables and aim to have zipped pockets. On this day, my phone was living in a pocket against my right thigh. My shock was that the phone was not at home. My thoughts raced. Had I left it somewhere? When had I last used it? I concluded that I was using it for GPS just before getting on the tram. It is possible that I failed to re-zip the pocket. In any case, it was clear that I had been the victim of a pick-pocket.

I sat down, feeling rather nauseous. I was unable to think straight. I realized that I would have felt less bad if my wallet had been stolen, as it contained one credit card [which I could have cancelled immediately] and a tiny bit of cash. The inconvenience of losing my phone was much, much greater. We were just considering what to do to report the theft. Libby got out her phone and suddenly had an idea: “Let’s see whether Find My iPhone can help”.

This is a service and app that does exactly what its name implies – it lets you locate other Apple devices. We knew that it worked, as Libby commonly checks my whereabouts if I am out late in the evening. She fired up the app and the display was very clear: Libby’s iPad was in our hotel room, my iPad and both Macs were offline and my iPhone was about 200 meters away across a park by the edge of a lake. We set off to investigate.

When we arrived within a few meters of the phone, we could see various people near the water’s edge: a group of girls having a picnic, a guy sitting on a bench messing with a phone and another guy sitting on the grass engrossed in something. I quickly walked past the first guy. It was not my phone he was fiddling with, as mine is an iPhone 7 Plus in a very distinctive red color – I could have spotted it from a long way off. We turned our attention to the other guy. Libby had noticed him tuck something under his thigh and, when we got closer, we could see that he was sorting through his wallet – looking at receipts etc. [Later we concluded that it probably wasn’t his own wallet at all!] The app indicated that he must be the thief.

We considered what to do: call the Police [but chances are he would have gone by the time they arrived], attack him [although he was not big, we did not know whether he had a knife or whatever], or simply accost him. We took the last option. I told him that I had seen him on the tram [I was fairly sure that I recognized him], that I had lost my phone and had he seen it? He jumped up and in broken English [he was not Swedish] he said that he had no iPhone and turned out his pockets, showing his [someone’s] wallet and a passport. He looked a picture of innocence. He could have had the phone elsewhere, but I was not inclined to frisk him.

We told him that the phone was nearby and he wanted to help us find it. We realized later that he was trying to distract us from the spot here he had been sitting. In due course, we walked [very calmly] away and I wondered if I was watching my phone disappearing. The app now told us that the phone was offline [i.e. switched off]. We decided to search around where he had been sitting and there it was in the grass! We must have caught him unawares. If he had been smarter [or had more time] he would have thrown it in the bushes. We would never have found it and he could have retrieved it later.

I was very pleased to have my phone back and switched it back on. I then had another shock: the language had been changed to Spanish! I was mystified as to how he could have done this, particularly with so little time. I checked that he had not done any harm – no calls, emails etc. I changed the passcode – this time using the 6-digit option; I had always thought that 4 was enough.

I have since done some research and the consensus seems to be that there is no straightforward way to get past the passcode on an iPhone using the latest iOS with Siri switched off. So how did he do it? I would very much like to know. This is not because I actually want to hack iPhones, but I would like to know what I could do to protect myself. Is a 6-digit passcode better? Should I use the alphanumeric option?

Having spent some time thinking and talking about this incident, I have various thoughts:

  • Having a bright red, easily spotted phone was a benefit.
  • Having what is probably the most steal-able phone on the market was not.
  • I must ensure that I always re-zip my pocket.
  • Always travel with a quick-thinking companion [who has a phone].
  • The Find My iPhone app is very worthwhile.
  • We should have used the Play Sound option in the app as soon as we got close to the guy.
  • Maybe we should have attempted to detain the thief and called the Police.
  • Perhaps we should have photographed him.
  • Before traveling, making backups [to iTunes] of iPhones and iPads would be smart.

A final thought: In the past, phones and other small electronic devices all had a small loop – a point to which a lanyard [i.e. a tethering string] could be attached. This facility would prevent many “quiet” thefts, such as pick-pocketing. Clearly a blatant “grab and run” is still possible, but is that very common? A lanyard of the right length might also prevent a dropped phone hitting the ground. I am pondering the idea of SuperGlueing a loop on to my phone …

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Posted August 17th, 2017, by

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This blog is a discussion of embedded software matters - news, comment, technical issues and ideas, along with other passing thoughts about anything that happens to be on my mind. The Colin Walls Blog

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Commented on 17 August 2017 at 11:08
By tracey

wow – well done Libby for quick thinking! Pretty amazing that you got it back but definitely disconcerting that he’d managed to get into it so quickly. Have you passed this all along to Apple for their thoughts?

Commented on 21 August 2017 at 10:26
By Colin Walls

@Tracey – I agree that it would be sensible to share this story with Apple, but I have no idea how to do so.

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