Reality Bytes: Pssst! Wanna Buy and iPod?

You're enjoying a lovely evening in the park - sandwiches and softball. A nice-looking kid comes over and offers to sell you an iPod for $100. You're reluctant, but it's a really sweet deal. You agree. The next day, you find out you've bought stolen goods. Congratulations! You're a business partner in the latest crime wave: stolen MP3 players. They're hot commodities, and the thefts sometimes lead to violence. For safety's sake, some schools have banned players entirely.

Other gear isn't so vulnerable. Some computer manufacturers will record serial numbers and then flag computers that are reported stolen. Some wireless providers will disable stolen cellphones. There's even Lojack-type software for laptops that lets police swoop down on the bad guys.

Trafficking in MP3 players could be dramatically reduced or practically eliminated. Like any hardware that connects to the Internet, players sooner or later call home (to iTunes or wherever). The device could then communicate its electronic serial number, for an identity check. If it had been flagged as stolen, the manufacturer could send a crippling signal to turn it off or disable its USB port so it refuses to download data or cannot be recharged. Software could backtrack through Internet routers to pinpoint the player's physical whereabouts. Even if you couldn't get a search warrant, at least you could egg the guy's house.

It doesn't matter if the objective is to retrieve the device or not. Once it's understood that stolen players are locatable or inoperable, no one will be stupid enough to buy one in that park. And if stolen players had no buyers and were as useful as paperweights, then there would be no point in stealing them. Your player would be much safer.

There are some enterprising solutions to gear security (see stuffbak.com, unloseit.com, gadgettheft.com, and absolute.com). But it's time for player manufacturers to step up. They aren't obligated to do it, but it's the right thing, and whichever company is first with a solid security system could gain a market advantage - and save customers lots of hassle or even harm.

How long did it take you to read this? Three or four minutes? That's a long time. Better check that your iPod is still around.

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