As well as freeing us to share information, the web can also trap and entangle us if we give too much away.
In our openness on the internet and social networks, we have to remember that it is unwise, for example, to tempt thieves by posting pictures of our homes, announcing their location and writing a status message about going on holiday.
However, the double-edged nature of the technology means all may not be lost when our gadgets go missing.
For example, while pictures posted on Facebook, Twitter or Flickr can reveal too much about us, they can also help recover a stolen camera.
“Exif” data – information automatically added to photo files – show camera settings when a photograph was taken, plus the time and date, the model of the camera and sometimes its serial number.
Flickr makes this information easy to view via a link next to the photo, and services such as GadgetTrak.com and Stolencamerafinder.com have begun collecting the data to help owners retrieve stolen cameras.
A search might find photos taken with the lost camera and uploaded to a social networking site that provides clues to who might have taken them. With cameras and phones increasingly able to embed location data into pictures, the whereabouts of the gadgets themselves may also be easier to ascertain.
Databases of camera serial numbers are still in their early stages, but stolen smartphones and laptops are already being recovered with the help of specialist software.
GadgetTrak’s Mobile Security tracking software can be activated when a smartphone or laptop goes missing, automatically using its camera to photograph the user the first time it is switched on. GPS and WiFi data can also be gathered from the device to determine its position.
Thieves stole smartphones from displays in a store in Tigard, Oregon, last month. The store activated GadgetTrak, pictures were taken of two young men driving in a car, and the phones were tracked by GPS to an apartment complex. A car was identified by a permit window sticker visible in one photograph, and police are investigating.
Sometimes, these tracking stories turn into high-tech chases both followed on and aided by social networks. In March, web designer Joshua Kaufman reported to Oakland police in the San Francisco Bay area that his Apple MacBook had been stolen. He was using software called Hidden and was able to tell officers the laptop’s whereabouts, but he says they took no action, citing a lack of resources.
Kaufman started a blog on Tumblr called This Guy Has My MacBook and uploaded a number of images of a man allegedly photographed by the laptop while driving, sleeping on a couch in his apartment and sitting in bed.
He also uploaded screenshots from the stolen laptop that he claimed were of someone deleting his account and signing into another Google account.
After he tweeted about his blog, it garnered thousands of retweets, eventually getting national media coverage. The police became involved. Using an e-mail address found on a screenshot that pointed them to a taxi company, they arrested a driver on suspicion of possessing stolen goods. The MacBook was recovered shortly afterwards.
In another case, this time using the free tracking software Prey, Sean Power watched from Canada as his laptop was used by a man sitting in a bar in Brooklyn, New York. Power began tweeting photos and screenshots of the man logging into bank and Gmail accounts.
A virtual scavenger hunt soon developed on Twitter, with people tweeting advice and researching the suspect. One woman went to the bar to observe the man and text updates, and was soon joined by another Twitter user.
The man eventually surrendered the laptop to them voluntarily, saying he had found, not stolen, it. Power saw the good Samaritans’ smiling faces staring into the webcam as they recovered the laptop.
He later had a conversation on Twitter with the suspect in which they resolved the matter amicably. The police were not involved.
There are many other such stories, including the man filmed on a stolen laptop who begged its owner to take down from YouTube a video of him doing a silly dance. The video has been viewed more than1m times.
There are many services and programs to help retrieve or lock down stolen laptops. These include LoJack for Laptops, PC PhoneHome, Laptop Cop, zTrace, BackStopp, MyLaptopGPS and the free, open-source software Adeona.
Device makers, too, are beginning to offer similar services. Apple has Find My iPhone, iPad or iPod Touch, a service that can be enabled in the device’s settings.
There is also an app that can be installed on any other Apple device to locate the lost one, or it can be tracked in any web browser.
Find My iPhone can display a message on the phone’s screen asking the finder to call a number to return it. If you have mislaid the phone around the house, a signal can be sent remotely to activate a sound on the device to help you find it. Otherwise, its location can be viewed on a map.
The iOS device can also be remotely locked and wiped of all its data.
Research in Motion has a similar service, BlackBerry Protect, for its phones, as do Microsoft for Windows phones. HTC has introduced the same features for its Android phones at HTCSense.com.
In addition, there are a number of third-party phone apps now available, including Mobile Defense, Where’s My Droid, WaveSecure for Android and Berry Locator for BlackBerry smartphones.
Behind all of these services is the kind of Big Brother surveillance and hacking technology we usually resent – but in these cases it seems somehow more acceptable when justice can actually be seen to be done.
Read the news your way: apps that help you keep up with the world
ZiteGlossy newsfeed apps abound for the iPad, with Flipboard having led the way in adding a magazine feel to sources. AOL Editions is impressive, but I prefer the simple but appealing way that Zite (bought last month by CNN) lays out the news. Stories are relevant, eye-catching and easy to save for later, with tie-ins to Instapaper, ReadItLater and the Evernote notes archive. Being asked whether you like the stories and sources can be irritating but helps personalise future editions.
PulsePulse uses Android and iPad touchscreens to maximum effect to make RSS news feeds eminently viewable with its up-, down- and side-swiping of a matrix of illustrated sources and stories. It can turn into something of a Daily Me and You, with links shared by friends on Facebook turned into a news feed, as well as status updates and wall posts. The same goes for Twitter links, and sharing or saving news from the reader yourself can be achieved with a couple of taps in this intuitive app.
News360With the August release of version 2.0, News360’s Android and iPad apps have introduced a much greater degree of personalisation to this directory-style news service. With your permission, News360 will study your social and web activity to present news that is much more focused on your interests. Top sources on individual news stories are still grouped together, and detailed story chronologies and integration with Google Plus and Evernote have been added.