I’m very reluctant when it comes to technology, so I’d simply like to tell a story involving technology. Make of it what you will. Marvel at the role of the internet, the power of the printed word, the stupidity and carelessness, the bureaucratic delays, or the triumph of law. Or just listen to the story.
One day during exam week in December, I got a call from my 15-year-old brother. He’d come home with a friend to play ping pong in the basement. The boys were unusually cold, so naturally they put on sweaters and kept playing. Then, when my brother went to his room to get his laptop, he found it — along with his iPod and all his money — gone.
You should probably call the police, I said. No, not yet, he said. Okay, I said. Don’t let your friend leave you alone, but you can stay inside. Apparently I’d forgotten the safety lessons my parents taught me when I was six.
Finally, my brother got in touch with my parents — my dad saw an e-mail on his BlackBerry. They immediately called the police and rushed home. In the meantime, my brother discovered a picture on his Facebook wall of a large man holding a wad of cash. The burglar had stolen my brother’s computer, where Facebook was open, and posted a picture of himself with the stolen goods.
The cops found the basement door busted out with shards of wood all over the basement (wondering why you were cold, boys?), took fingerprints and declared the burglar the stupidest criminal they’d ever encountered. So one would think: the guy had announced his identity to the whole world. But not so fast: The police didn’t have a name or address, and burglaries are a low priority and rarely solved.
This is when being a member of the fourth estate comes in handy. The day I came home for winter break, my father, a Washington Post editor and former columnist, revived his column for a day to report the story. Soon, media outlets around the country were covering the burglary. The best was from local TV reporter Pat Collins: “So it appears the suspect may have created his own” — pause — “wanted poster,” he said in the most glorious cadence.
The attention spurred the police into action. They assigned us a detective. Readers called in tips. The police raided a house: wrong guy. A TV reporter found the criminal: wrong again. Weeks passed. Lots of stories; no results. My dad handled the publicity; my mom, a lawyer, dealt with the police. We all told the story and hungered for information.
My brother became a school celebrity. The picture on his Facebook wall garnered 50 likes and 32 comments. Kids created profile pictures imitating the burglar’s pose: finger pointed at a wad of bar mitzvah cash, hood up, arrogant smirk. My brother got dozens of friend requests from upperclassmen he barely knew. After the trauma of having a semi-private space invaded, my brother loved the fame.
And, what do you know, they finally caught the crook. The folks at Facebook had known his identity all along: they’d traced the IP address he used to access my brother’s account, but they couldn’t disclose any information without a subpoena. A few weeks after the burglary, our man was behind bars after police apprehended him trying to get rid of a gun. A grand jury is currently investigating the case.
A minor crime that would have passed with little more than a sigh turned into national news thanks to Facebook. But even with the burglar’s posted picture, which marked the first time Facebook had been so instrumental in a crime, would the story have been noticed if my dad were not a reporter?
People across the city expressed concern and sought to help when they learned of a crime in the community. But they read about it in a printed newspaper — or perhaps an online version of that paper. My dad first published his story as a note on his Facebook page; it was in print the next morning. His Facebook note received 17 comments, but, once it was published in the Post, the story immediately garnered national attention. Only then did it become something for people to discuss, fodder for public discourse. Only then did the police take real action and solve the crime. So does the press — real newspapers, not any man with a Twitter account — win the day after all?