Using its playlist and some tech savvy, lost iPod reshuffled to its original owner

Ricky Carioti/WASHINGTON POST - Dar Maxwell of Silver Spring poses with her lost IPod shuffle that was found by Washington Post reporter Howard Schneider. Post producer Ryan Kellett found Maxwell through posting her playlist online and also by the personal info that was attached to the songs that she had purchased.

What’s the chance of tracking down the owner of a lost iPod when all you have to go on is the playlist?

There are perhaps a quarter of a billion of the music devices circulating around the world now, and given the global traffic that passes through the Washington area, the owner could be . . . anywhere.

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So after finding a pink iPod Shuffle during a jog on Sligo Creek Parkway recently, my first inclination was to stuff it in a gym bag and enjoy the music. The trail was empty, and it did not seem worth the trouble to hunt down the owner of an inexpensive device whose content was probably stored on a home computer and easily duplicated.

But after I gave it a listen, the personality of the owner seemed to peek through — and made it hard not to help the orphaned device find a way home.

“It’s a pink Shuffle,” Dar Maxwell said excitedly when The Washington Post called her Friday to say that her lost music player was in safe hands. “How’d you know it’s mine?”

Certainly not by the playlist itself. The thing had a personality — annoying at first, when Eminem came blaring through, but more subtle when Cake, Shirley Bassey and Florence and the Machine followed along.

To help track down the owner, some of my Web-savvy colleagues offered to play along in a little armchair anthropology. They posted the playlist online and challenged readers to identify the owner based on the music.

That drew plenty of guesses, none correct.

“Female in her late 20s to mid 30s. Likely to be white, educated and sporty,” RubyRedbag commented.

“The owner is a dude aged 39-42,” offered 0073, while jonmiller1 got more specific: “a college-educated Caucasian female in her 20s with Appalachian heritage.”

Actually, the owner is Miami-born Maxwell, 47, who was walking her dog on the Silver Spring trail and lost the Shuffle just before she turned off to go back to her neighborhood.

As the guesses indicate, you can’t really judge a book by its cover when it comes to mining playlists for clues to character. Although some of the hip-hop and rap was courtesy of her two teenage sons, the Eminem tracks were her doing.

And Maxwell is also responsible for “Teenage Dream” from the cast of “Glee.”

“This is what I listen to,” said Maxwell, who works at an international development company. Despite some ribbing from friends about the “Glee” track, she said she felt the playlist was a good reflection of her personality: a born-in-the-’60s core with plenty of modern flavors.

“I will go to my grave saying Aerosmith is my favorite.”

So how did we find her?

The Post’s Ryan Kellett knew enough about iPod technology to examine the digital “watermark” associated with each purchased iTunes track.

You can find that by right-clicking on a song and going to “get info.” That brings up various pieces of data stored with the file — including, in this case, an e-mail address that served as the “Apple ID” on one of the tracks.

From the e-mail, he was able to find a phone number using other databases and — voila.

More evidence of the sacrifice to privacy that comes with the digital soup we’re swimming in? Proof that the cloud is not a metaphor?

“It was surprising” that enough information was embedded in the machine to track her down, Maxwell said. Unlike some devices, the Shuffle can’t be locked with a password.

But ultimately, she said — her pink cache of music back in her hands — the reunion was “a great holiday story,” like Rudolph helping Santa deliver all those misfit toys to homes where they belong.

“Thank God it was a cool playlist.”

Related:

ArtsPost: Lost and found: iPod edition

Staff writer Ryan Kellett contributed to this report.

 
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