Find My iPhone Vigilantism, a Demonstration of State Failure in Providing Security

The New York Times ran a story covering a recent phenomenon where victims of iPhone theft use the Find My iPhone feature to find the thief and reclaim their phone:

Using the Find My iPhone app on her computer, she found that someone had taken the phones to a home in this Los Angeles exurb, 30 miles east of her West Hollywood apartment.

So Ms. Maguire, a slight, 26-year-old yoga instructor, did what a growing number of phone theft victims have done: She went to confront the thieves — and, to her surprise, got the phones back.

Ah, the lovely Hollywood outcome where all is well at the end. But the news isn’t Hollywood so you know that a happy ending at the beginning of the story must be followed by a story of horror:

In San Diego, a construction worker who said his iPhone had been stolen at a reggae concert chased the pilferer and wound up in a fistfight on the beach that a police officer had to break up. A New Jersey man ended up in custody himself after he used GPS technology to track his lost iPhone and attacked the wrong man, mistaking him for the thief.

The rest of the article mostly consists of dire warning, primarily form police officers, against people seeking out thieves and attempting to recover their property. By the end of the story you’re supposed to see these so-called vigilantes as well-meaning albeit foolish people. What isn’t discussed are the motivations of these people willing to put themselves at risk to recover their stolen property.

I see this phenomenon (which likely consists of no more than ten or so people but the media needed a story so it inflated how common this practice is) as an example of the state’s failure to provide adequate security. As you likely know the state maintains a virtual monopoly on security services via its monopoly on law enforcement. While there are a few areas that the state allows private security providers to operate in (namely building security) the personal electronics recovery market isn’t one of them. If somebody steals your mobile phone you’re expected to rely on the police to recover it. This wouldn’t be an issue if the police would actually invest resources into recovering a stolen phone. But in most cases they will fill out a meaningless report and inform you that it’s almost impossible to recover a stolen personal electronic device. Even providing the police with access to your Find My iPhone service will seldom encourage them to get off of their asses and retrieve your phone. In fact you can get more done by contacting Apple and providing it with your stolen phone’s serial number. At least then the phone will be kept by Apple should it ever be brought in for repairs and the person who brought it in will be reported to the police. But that’s a pretty big if.

Since the solution provided by the state is unwilling to retrieve your phone and private solutions are verboten you’re left with only one option: if you want to retrieve your stolen phone you have to do it yourself. Don’t blame the vigilantes, blame the state that monopolized the security market and failed to provide an adequate service.