Somebody Out There Wants Your iPod

By Robert MacMillan Staff Writer
Thursday, April 28, 2005; 10:18 AM

When it comes to the iPod, the press corps -- myself included -- put on our best pack journalism act. Our coverage is comprehensive and, boy, is it breathless! And why wouldn't it be? New York City transportation officials say portable electronic devices, notably iPods, are almost entirely responsible for a spike in subway crime since the beginning of the year.

I can already tell what you're thinking: c'mon, MacMillan, we're having iPods for breakfast again ?! I'm afraid so. I hoped to write about something different today, but when Apple's diminutive music players -- or rather, their theft -- can bring Gotham City to its knees, we feel obliged to bring you the details.

The problem has gotten serious enough that the Metropolitan Transportation Authority held a news conference to announce that theft of the $99-to-$450 devices is quite literally out of hand.

The number of major felonies -- a category that encompasses murder, rape, robbery, assault, burglary, grand larceny and auto theft -- committed on the subway during the first three months of 2005 rose 18.3 percent over the same period last year, but if officials excluded iPod and cell-phone theft, the rate of serious crime would have fallen 3 percent, said Michael J. Farrell, the MTA's deputy commissioner for strategic initiatives, according to the New York Times . The real numbers are a little smaller -- 50 iPods and 165 cell phones stolen compared to zero and 82 in 2004 -- but it's enough evidence for the MTA to consider it time to start a public-relations campaign warning people to guard their digital devices.

Newsday reported that "beginning in May, the MTA will hang advisories on subways, with one warning: 'Earphones are a giveaway. Protect your device.' In fact, some owners of iPods have replaced the telltale white earphones with other headsets, to avoid unwanted attention."

MTA officials did not recommend that people curtail their iPod use on the subway, though they noted that blotting out one of your equally important five senses can make it difficult to avoid situations such as, say, getting mugged and beaten. Instead, the New York Post quoted transit chief Michael Scagnelli as saying authorities would take more care to find criminals in the system: "If you're a bad guy, watch out. The gentleman or lady next to you might be a cop."

Subway riders waxed philosophical when not putting safety first:

  • Jean Lam, 33-year-old veterinary technician from Queens, riding the F train and listening to Sarah McLachlan as she talked to Newsday: "If it's not the iPod, it's gonna be something else." If she lost her iPod, what's the worst that could happen on her commute? "I'd be staring at people." OK, better hang on to that iPod.
  • Unnamed subway rider, talking to local ABC affiliate WABC : "I'm not sure how they'd get it from me, unless they pried it out of my cold, dead hand."
  • Alison Emmett, 26, a Greenwich Village lawyer, talking to the Times: "You keep it in your bag. ... You keep your bag in front of you. You keep your hand on it."
  • So what's behind the high rate of theft? If you thought there was a profitable black market for stolen iPods, you'd be wrong. It's not that the average podsnatcher who rolled you on Nostrand Avenue is more desperate than a junkie for your Bebel Gilberto-Uncle Tupelo-Ministry mashup. The relatively steep price, the Associated Press reported , is enough of an incentive for crooks to keep them instead of selling them. Henry Jenkins, director of the Comparative Media Studies Program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, cast this argument through the Jean Valjean lens in an interview with the Times: "The participation gap creates techno-envy, where the kids who are locked out of participation in the culture covet those tools and devices that are considered essential to being a young person."

    Techno-envy: When the time is right, will you be ready? Actually, this is a chronic problem that puts the iPod into the long line of must-have items that have spawned spikes in theft throughout the years. The list includes electronics devices such as boom boxes, but it also centers around any portable status symbol: Air Jordans, gold chains, brand-name clothing, leather jackets, you name it.

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