Foolishly calling for justice

A recent New York Times report by Ian Lovett details brave but unwise acts by individuals whose iPhones have been stolen. In the article Lovett shares the tale of Sarah Maguire of West Covina, CA, who after a night of alcohol fueled revelry awoke to find that her (and her friend’s) iPhones had been stolen. Maguire used the phones’ “Find My iPhone” feature to track where the thief had taken them.

Maguire then traveled 30 miles to a nearby town, banged on the thief’s door and demanded her phone back. The thief relented and gave back the phones. Maguire’s moxie worked in this instance, but it could have easily turned deadly.

A recent addition to Apple’s iOS 7 Find My Phone feature is called Activation Lock. This functions as a kill switch. Once enabled, the phone is off-limits to anybody without the owner’s iCloud password, even if the thief wipes and resets the phone. As a result the phone has no resale potential, except as parts —- which is a burgeoning market. A proposal in the California state legislature would mandate this kind of technology in all new cellular phones. We think such legislation is long overdue.

For this story, Lovett interviewed George Gascón, the San Francisco district attorney (who is also a former police chief): “This is a new phenomenon — it’s not simply running after the person to grab the phone. It opens up the opportunity for people to take the law into their own hands, and they can get themselves into really deep water if they go to a location where they shouldn’t go.”

Gascón also told the San Francisco Weekly that iPhone thefts accounted for 67 percent of all robberies earlier this year and that 14 percent of all crime in New York City was related to thefts of iOS devices.

Not only are smart phone owners looking for trouble as they try to retrieve their stolen devices, but owners are being roughed up and even killed during the taking of the phones. A kill switch would make the devices useless to anyone but the owner.

With regard to the trend in attempted recovery, it’s one thing if you’re a trained law enforcement officer and you make your approach with backup, proper equipment and other resources. That’s fundamentally different than angrily rushing up to the door of the biker bar and demanding justice. Unfortunately, some people don’t seem to understand the difference.

Driven by desperation and the indignity of having their phones ripped from them, several people have gone from theft victim to assault victim. A few have even gone from victim to arrestee. Nobody wants to see some creep make off with their hard-earned possessions, but just because you know you’re in the right doesn’t mean the thief will freely and easily assent to your definition of the situation or your desires in the matter.

Anyone whose house has ever been broken into knows how violating this can be. It undermines all your notions of safety and security. So too is it with phone thefts. These are expensive devices. People often have all kinds of important information stored on their phones —- irreplaceable photos, contact information for their social or business network, credit card or other financial information. As such, it’s understandable when such a deprivation motives otherwise sane and reasonable people to take matters into their own hands.

Much of this also reflects a disquieting trend in society toward adoption of ludicrous “stand your ground laws.” Incensed and endangered people often can’t discern between what they want to do and what they ought to do. While nobody wants to retreat, there’s a not-so-fine line between defending yourself in the face of danger and retribution just because you can.

None of this suggests that we should not defend ourselves. We most certainly should, but we don’t need the muddying legislation found in these proposals.

In short, we need to leave the work of the police to the police. If you aren’t in imminent danger, then you need to take a breath and call the cops. While that’s counter to the cowboy ethos that appears to fuel modern sensibilities of justice, it is that discretion that separates us from wild animals.

It may offend our egos, but we are not John Wayne, nor Dirty Harry, nor Batman. Nor should we act like it.