Scenario: The Hunt is On(line)

Constanze Kurz, Stefan Ullrich

The new startup company “Loose sCrew” specializes in Android apps—small programs for cell phones that make extensive use of the smartphones’ built-in location functions. The company achieved some degree of recognition in its hometown for its citywide scavenger hunt and other virtual terrain games for cell phone users. Its latest product is called “MisterX”—it’s part fun and games, part practical application. If a cellphone is stolen, for example, it sends the phone’s location at given intervals to the game server which registered users can then log on to. For an additional fee, an in-app purchase allows these “amateur detectives” to use the same app to activate the cellphone’s camera remotely and take a photo, or to turn on its microphone.

Six months after the app appeared on the market, a whole community had developed around it—in a city with a population of about 80,000. The only problem: there wasn’t a single theft. That didn’t change until last April, when the sCrew game server sent out notification of a theft to the amateur detectives. Every two minutes, the current location of the stolen cellphone was displayed on the “MisterX” app. Within less than an hour, 23 users were already on the virtual hunt.

Leon has just added play credits to his account, so he can afford to snap a few pictures from the stolen cell using “Mister X.” Predictably, the first shot is all black because the stolen phone is obviously still in the pocket of the thief on the lam. Leon knows from the GPS coordinates that the thief is running away—and he’s not even especially quick about it. With a single finger gesture, Leon directs the app to make a ten-second audio clip. A male voice is audible above a loud rustling sound. Now he’s psyched, so he clicks to get another audio clip. This time he hits the jackpot: no rustling, just a clear voice speaking in a thick Bavarian accent.

In the gaming community, Johanna has risen to the level of “Senior Consultant Detective.” So, as the hunt progresses, she has access to all the available information. When she hears the Bavarian accent on the recording, she immediately remembers that there are only two Bavarian bars in town. One of them is within walking distance from her. On her way out the door, she grabs her wallet, cell phone and tablet. As she leaves, she quickly shoots off a Tweet: “#mrX Target at the Hofbrau Haus, attack FTW.”

Armed with cameras running to collect evidence, five gamers storm into the Bavarian locale, “Hofbrau Haus”, where they call the stolen phone and a screaming “BEEP!” does indeed ring out from one of the tables. A visibly flustered gentleman with a moustache is boisterously cursed out as a thief and even physically threatened.

The police are called, and when they arrive, they piece together various statements only to reveal that the bearded gentlemen had mistakenly grabbed his daughter Sophia’s phone. As fate would have it, the woman seated at the table beside him was not his wife, but a secret date no one was supposed to know about. A couple of the gamers who’d stayed home posted video of the “raid” on Twitter and Facebook, so the successful conclusion to their “hunt for the thief” went viral and the family father was publicly exposed.

In the course of subsequent reporting on the incident, representatives for “Loose sCrew” clarified that their Mister-X app is intended for use as a virtual terrain game. Customers are required to consent to the fact that their device may be used as a location detector at any given time: the GPS function is literally not just a feature, it’s a bug! They argue that the typical Screw user is constantly posting their location to Twitter or other social media platforms anyway.


This case scenario raises multiple ethical questions. The main issue is how we are to evaluate these new services:

  • Is it ethically problematic for Loose sCrew to even develop a program for the collective “hunting down” of cellphone thieves? How are users supposed to distinguish between alleged criminals and legitimate cellphone users?
  • The pursuit of an alleged thief takes place in real time, so as soon as the alarm is sounded there is a risk of a kind of „lynch mob“ forming. How should this risk be assessed ethically?
  • In countries with data protection regulations in place (GDPR), by the time the theft of a cellphone is registered with the police department, all the private or professionally identifying data has long since been swiped clean from the device. Is vigilante justice morally justified in this case?
  • The alleged thief spoke in a thick dialect. In the heat of the chase, this can quickly become an inadmissible generalization about entire population groups. What role does the gaming community play in this?
  • In this case, the alleged thief was innocent. How would you assess the situation from a moral point of view if he had actually been a thief? Should photos and conversations of a criminal be published without their consent?
  • Is the owner of the phone partly at fault here? After all, for weeks on end, the actual owner of the phone allowed all of her movements throughout town to be tracked and instructed the MisterX app to sound an alarm as soon as the phone turned up on any street it didn’t recognize. Let’s just assume that the owner entered a friend’s apartment for the first time. The phone’s software would immediately give all the other gamers access to space surveillance of the entire area. Does the phone owner have any moral obligation to her friend? If so, what does that look like?
  • Leon is the one who took the photos and activated the mic remotely. If Loose sCrew had not made this graphic multi-media data available to the community, and had instead released only summary information, would this change your moral assessment of the situation?
  • What’s your take on the way the bearded gentleman was exposed by the publication of film clips and photos? Keep in mind that he was already out in public.

Published in Informatik Spektrum 36(2), 2013, S. 208–209.

Translated from German by Lillian M. Banks

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