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Fighting crime? There's an app for that: PHS grad foils theft using Google Latitude app


PHS grad student Stephen Ball used Google’s Latitude app to help the Georgia Tech Police Department apprehend a laptop thief.

In New York the NYPD is learning to use the Find My iPhone app to track down thieves.

An app called Crime Stoppers allows people to submit tips to help police and investigators catch criminals.

Then just a few weeks ago PHS grad Stephen Ball, now a computer science major at Georgia Tech, jumped on the busting-criminals-with-technology bandwagon using Google’s Latitude app. Because of Ball’s quick, techno-savvy thinking, thousands of dollars in stolen goods were quickly returned to their owners.

On Sunday, Feb. 5, four Ga. Tech students, including Ball’s girlfriend, reported their laptops, purses and other articles  missing from an unattended room in the Ga. Tech Student Center.

“Once Charlotte told me that her stuff was missing, the first thing I thought to do was check Google Latitude and see when the last time it was updated,” Ball said. “ Unfortunately, it was only set to update every hour.  I went to the student center to meet Charlotte, and while she was cancelling her credit cards I was continuously refreshing Google Latitude.”

Google’s Latitude app is a GPS-style application that tracks your phone's location and allows you to make your location visible to approved contacts.

Applications, or “apps” on a cell phone give the phone additional function and use. Apps allow people to surf the net, blog, play  games, turn the phone into a calculator, study for their SATs, track heart rate, and the list goes on.


There are now over 10,000 apps available for iPhone alone.

“After about 30 minutes of sitting there the hour refresh period was about to happen,” Ball said.  “I saw that it did, and that the phone was located along North Avenue near the football stadium.”

Ball then showed the map to the Ga. Tech police officer working on the case. The officer radioed the information to other Tech police. Ball said he thought the suspect would be gone before officers could get to him, but within 15 minutes Ball and his girlfriend were contacted - officers had apprehended the suspect and needed them to identify stolen goods.

The couple was escorted in a police car to North Avenue, past The Varsity, directly in front of the Bank of America building where a fire truck, ambulance and multiple police cars were creating a traffic jam.

Ball said when he and his girlfriend arrived a GTPD officer on the scene explained the events that led to the suspect’s arrest.

“At the time, we didn't know that this traffic was related to the robbery,” said Ball. “[The officer said] a GTPD officer was driving up North Avenue and spotted a man carrying a purse with multiple laptops in it. She calls for him to come over to her car, he drops the bag and runs.  The officer then pursued him and while pursuing him, he runs in front of a squad car.”

The suspect was injured in the accident and was transported to Grady Hospital for treatment, according to Ga. Tech police reports.

Ball said he couldn’t believe his plan actually worked, and he pointed out that the thief could have eluded officers if he would have done one thing differently.

“If he had simply turned off the phone he most likely would have gotten away with it,” Ball said. “Since he was walking near campus, the phone was able to pick up a Georgia Tech wireless signal and automatically connect to it.”

Ball said beyond his own amazement at the day’s unfolding of events, GTPD officers were also shocked that they apprehend the perpetrator in such an unorthodox manner.

Interestingly, while proving highly useful in unusual situations such as this, Google’s Latitude app and other location-finding apps have come under fire for being an invasion of privacy.

Critics say they don’t want Google, or their friends and family for that matter, knowing where they are every second of the day. Critics also say there is no way to be certain who is receiving information about their location, or for how long Google stores that information.

But Ball disagrees. He argues that you can define how often Latitude updates and whether you want you location shared or whether you just want to view the location of your friends, and that you can choose who you share your location with.

“Only those people can see where you are and you can choose whether you want your location history saved, or whether you just want it to only show updates of your location,” Ball said. “No one is forcing you to install Latitude. If you don't want your location shared, just don't sign up for the service.  It's very simple.”