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Friday, November 15, 2013

The High-Tech Bike Lock Zeitgeist: Is Tracking Down A Bike Thief Worth It?

Posted By on Fri, Nov 15, 2013 at 10:07 AM


All of the sudden there seems to be a million different high-tech bike security solutions popping up on crowd funding sites -- Bitlock, to BikeSpike, Cricket, Lock8, to name a few.

The reason for all these new anti-bike theft startups seems rather obvious: Bike theft has gotten out of control, especially in San Francisco, and it seems to be a growing problem not even our local cops can combat.

Despite a Board of Supervisors committee's nice, but non-binding government to reduce bike theft by half by 2018, it seems like setting up everyone to fail.

I talked to Mehrdad Majzoobi, the creator of BitLock, and a couple of cyclists who have had bikes stolen (multiple times), to learn a little bit more about what it's really going to take to keep bike thieves at bay.

Startups like BitLock are a cool idea. It might not protect your bike better than a standard u-lock, but that's not really the point is it? Majzoobi said that he wanted to create a lock that makes access sharing possible and seamless. "I believe access management is an important issue and platforms for bikeshare can benefit the society as a whole," he said.

"BitLock is not just about bike security. Security is of course an element. As for being a keyless lock, BitLock does not have the security issues of mechanical keying systems. I am sure many people still remember the bike locks that could be opened with a Bic pen. Besides, Bike lock app allows users to share access to their bike with others as well as to organize and monitor access."

Other new companies, like Cricket, BikeSpike, FlyKly, and Lock8 use a slightly different strategy. They have anti-theft measures, including alarms and tracking devices that allow you to find your bike after it takes off. The real question is, "What then?"

That is, you've tracked your precious bike back to the lair of the dastardly thief, via your high-tech gadget, just like a super hero, do you confront the villain? Danny Spitzberg, a long time friend, freelancer, and multiple victim of bike thefts, told me that if he found his stolen bike locked on the street he'd "lock it with another lock and then get my hands on a circular saw with a metal-cutting disc and a 50-foot extension cord."

"But if the signal was pinging from inside a building, who knows," he said. "How much am I attached to the bike? How much of a vigilante am I thinking I can act like?

One thing Spitzberg did note: "It's funny to think how the 'Internet of things' might give folks who've never dealt with theft or crime a vague impression they can "click" their way to recovering property."

I think that's the issue here, ultimately. While you might be able to track down your stolen property, there's still no guarantee that you'll be able to take it back. It's not a game, where if you track down your stolen property it's magically restored to your inventory. There's no doubt some value in being able to track down stolen property, but that's no guarantee. For example, earlier this year when my computer was stolen, I couldn't get any help from the police, even with the license plate number of the thief and the serial number of my Macbook. You can bet that now I have Prey installed on my devices, but I'm certainly not confident that will help retrieve hardware.

I talked to another cyclist, Becca Fanning, a writer who has blogged about her experience with bike theft, and who has since had her bike stolen again. She told me that, with regard to products like Cricket she said, "I think these devices need to be thought out further before they will be effective enough to be widely used," she said.

Cricket, Fanning added, seems interesting but has a very short range. "It wouldn't be useful for my bike security needs. It is also still large enough to be discovered. Once the technology becomes smaller and more effective I would definitely consider purchasing one," she said.

She does, however, like the idea of tracking down thieves -- and she has attempted to do so the old-fashioned way: Craigslist.

Tracking down a bike thief is one of my dreams. After having two bikes stolen I would love to discover a thief selling parts of my bike on Craigslist, arrange a meeting with him, and catch him in the act. I may have spent a bit of time on Craigslist perusing for bits of my bike -- and I would definitely take steps to recover my bike if I discovered the general location. My bike was a part of me, having it stolen feels like a huge violation. Tracking it down would be the ultimate success story!

The other major issue with features like Bitlock, Lock8, Cricket, and FlyKly is that they all are powered by software in one way or another. Software, just like hardware, can be broken. It's only a matter of time before bike thieves go high-tech and break locks via software. Of course, there's also the easy low-tech way of defeating all of these devices: ditch or break them. I can't imagine it would take long for a thief to understand that the Cricket, the Lock8, and the FlyKly all contain tracking devices -- and that they can all be ditched, just as easily as they can be stolen.

FlyKly is and interesting product that has earned over $400,000 on Kickstarter. It's an electric wheel that can help motivate your bike, power a light, and recharge a phone, but it can also act as both an internal lock and a tracking device. If a thief stole this wheel they could be in for an unpleasant surprise when it locked down -- but an enterprising thief could just as easily know that it's a $700 wheel, and hold it hostage or just ditch it.

It all seems blissfully optimistic, even the FlyKly Smart Light is secured with "a simple theft-proof clip-on mechanism." I'll put money down that "theft proof" means an allen-key. Nothing is theft proof for the determined and desperate.

Ultimately, bike theft will continue as long as people lock up bikes that are worth more than many other people get paid in a month (or a year?). No amount of Twitter shaming courtesy the SFPD will change that. As the bike industry, and the bike security industry, boom, will we see a growing number of vigilantes attempting to wrest their bikes away from thieves? Happy hunting, I guess.

Leif Haven is a writer and cyclist living in the Bay Area. He's can be spotted dragging himself up a hill -- literally and metaphorically.

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About The Author

Leif Haven

Leif Haven

Leif Haven is a writer and cyclist living in the Bay Area. He can be spotted dragging himself up a hill — literally and metaphorically.


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