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Find My Phone documentary
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Tracking his own thief.
I SPY

A Dutch filmmaker made a thief who stole his iPhone into the unwitting star of his movie

Ananya Bhattacharya
By Ananya Bhattacharya

Tech reporter

Most of us give up on a stolen phone when police can’t find the thief—but not one Dutch filmmaker.

After Anthony van der Meer’s phone got pinched while he was eating lunch in Amsterdam, he tried locating it using the Find my iPhone program, but it was too late—the thief had already removed the SIM card and gone offline. He filed a police complaint but it went nowhere. The incident got him thinking: “What kind of person would steal a phone? Where do these phones end up?”

To answer his question, van der Meer set a trap for the next thief to steal his phone.

He created a decoy phone, rigging an Android cellphone with the app Cerebus that stays on the handset even if a phone is turned off and the SIM card is replaced. (It works because the memory on the phone is in two parts: system and user. Even if the user part is deleted, the system part stays intact unless the phone is updated or a new operating system is loaded.)

After trying to get his phone stolen for four days, someone finally swiped the phone at a metro station. After the theft, the robber went offline but the phone returned to the grid after four days. That’s when van der Meer’s investigation—and movie project—began.

In his 20-minute film, Find My Phone, van der Meer documents two weeks in the life of his thief—who did not try to wipe the device clean for that period of time. Using the spyware fitted on the device, he remotely recorded audio and video clips, took photos and tracked the thief’s location, message and call histories whenever the phone was connected to the internet.

Eventually, van der Meer was able to track down the thief and even came face-to-face with him—but he finally decided to back away into anonymity again. The movie not only marks the movements of a stolen iPhone, but it also raises questions about the extent to which cellphone spying apps can invade privacy.

Watch the full film below:

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