On Thursday night, just a little before 11p.m. Canadian writer Sean Power tweeted out a message: “Twitter, help! Prey just found my stolen (as of three days ago) laptop. Here's the report. I see the guy!”
Power had installed Prey, a free, open-source program that tracks computers, and turned it on when he lost his laptop on a trip to New York. When someone turned the computer on, the program notified Powers.
Over the next two hours, he tweeted his efforts to get the computer back in a harrowing live-action mystery story. It had all the elements of a delicious detective novel: a beguiling woman in a purple sarong, a possible-thief played by a scruffy Italian, and a tech-geek stranger that sweeps in as the conquering hero. It also had a happy ending: The laptop was safely returned. Power is now en route to New York to reclaim what is rightfully his.
It all started after Prey kicked in when the computer was switched on. It captured an image of the man using Power’s computer and the location of where it was being used, a New York restaurant called Oficina Latina. Power posted the image to Twitter and identified the man by name: Paolo Votano. Power’s followers started tracking down information on Votano, and found that he was a co-owner of the restaurant. Power sent a friend there, a woman only identified as the “girl in the purple sarong.” She texted updates as Power tried to get the police to go to the restaurant.
At this point, news blogs started picking up the story. Tony Ortega at Village Voice wrote what others were voicing on Twitter: “I wondered if Power is hoaxing.” Some thought the whole event was a fantastic ploy to market Prey. “If this is a marketing stunt, it's working: "seanpower" is now trending in Canada,” Ortega wrote.
While the woman spoke to the bartender and employees, another Twitter user, Nick Reese, went to the restaurant after hearing about it in his news feed. Once he arrived, he and the girl confronted Votano. Votano gave the laptop back to them and Reese and the girl went out to celebrate with “creme brulee and strawberry alcoholic drinks.”
“Truly the most amazing live event witnessed on Twitter,” tweeted one man. “Some kind of historical moment.”
A call to Oficina Latina confirmed part of the story: Paolo Votano identified himself and said that, yes, he had returned a laptop the night before.
The part-owner of the restaurant said that a week earlier, a bag had been left at a table. No one called to claim it, and after a week of waiting, he took it out and decided to use it. An hour later, he said, a woman appeared at the restaurant saying he had stolen the laptop.
He said he would not normally have used it, but his own laptop had been stolen from his apartment the week before. When he saw there was a laptop in the bag, he just decided it was “karma.”
Power said he had left his birth certificate in the bag, but Votano said he didn’t look through the documents, nor touched the money left in the bag. He did, however, remove the stickers Power had put on his laptop and painted over the cover. Votano said, “It was a mistake to use it and I ruined the cover,” but he said gave it back with all the money and documents as soon as the crime-fighting duo came to claim it.
He said Power has since called him and thanked him for giving back the bag. Power tweeted that he would not be pressing charges and that he “kinda just wants this to blow over.”
Power is not the first to successfully track down lost technological goods thanks to the power of technology. In March, Mark Bao used YouTube to publicly chastise the thief of his computer, posting a video of the man dancing in front of his computer. He titled the video “Don’t steal computers belonging to people who know how to use computers.” The man apologized and returned it.
In April, Hugo Scheckter, a George Washington sophomore, tracked down his stolen iPad with the help of MobileMe, an Apple program that tracks devices. The police were able to use the information to track down the device, which had been sold to another person.
The digital trails left by thieves are helping track them down, but they are also opening up whole new areas of debate. Votano now has in his Google history a series of links accusing him of stealing a laptop. No charges will be brought against him, but his photograph and name are, on the Internet’s docket, connected to the story.
After my phone call with Votano, he started a Twitter account under the handle “lookingforPaolo.” He apologized on Power’s medium this time, and Power wrote back to say he accepted. “Ok Sean,” Votano wrote. “Thanks to believe me! In some way ... I feel better just don't forget your bag again..!”