How Tracked the iPhone Finder

Brian X. Chen blogs about how he and his Wired colleagues identifed the finder of the iPhone 4G. Alternate titles for the post included “Stalking as Journalism” and “The Internet Laughs at Your Puny Earthling Privacy.” Here are the Internet-based components of the investigation:

The day Gizmodo published its 4G iPhone bombshell, our former intern Rose Roark saw a suspicious-looking note posted by Hogan on someone’s Facebook wall. … We created a screenshot of the Facebook wall in case we needed it for future reference. …

By then, Hogan had deleted his Facebook profile, and presumably every other social networking profile he owned, in an effort to hide. That made the search difficult, but his attempt to disappear was already a major clue that he was in trouble.

Reviewing the screengrab of the Facebook wall, we saw a few other people — possibly Hogan’s friends — had posted comments in reaction to the Gizmodo story as well. From checking their Facebook profiles, it appeared several of them went to school at Santa Barbara City College. So I had a hunch that Hogan, too, attended the school at some point. …’s Kevin Poulsen searched Hogan’s name using a people-tracking website ( and found one Brian J. Hogan with addresses listed in Redwood City and Santa Barbara. …

I continued to obsess over finding more about Hogan, and late at night on Tuesday I got very lucky with one Google search: “Brian Hogan SBCC.” The first search result revealed a Facebook page for a 2008 China/Vietnam study abroad program with Santa Barbara City College students. Google’s cached result showed a part of a comment posted by Hogan. When I visited the study abroad group’s Facebook page, Hogan’s comment was no longer present, as he had purged his account. But that single Google search result was proof that Hogan attended SBCC. Even more importantly, we now had access to a group of 25 people who studied abroad with Hogan and were likely his friends.

Poulsen proceeded to send Facebook friend requests to everyone in the study abroad group. …

… I found a website hosted by a friend of Hogan, where he linked to a personal travel blog documenting the 2008 China/Vietnam study abroad experience. In that blog, I found one photo where the first name Brian was mentioned in a caption. I was certain that was Hogan.

In other words, you can’t undo your privacy-violating mistakes no matter how hard you try, your friends can inadvertently reveal a lot abut you, phriending is a very real threat, and scattered fragments of information can add up to enough to give you away.

i’d love to see wired comment about the ethics involved in their search (I’m a big fan, just also fascinated by ethics). BTW, commenting on your blog via iPad seriously sucks… I suspect it’s the prettify thingy, but don’t know for sure.)