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What just happened? We are living in an era where almost anything can be connected to the internet and used to track us. While this may be off-putting to some consumers who wish to maintain their privacy, the FBI has shown how tracking could be used in a good way, too.
On August 3, 2022, a Virginia family reported their 15-year-old daughter missing. Local news channel ABC15 publicized the court documents related to the case, opting not to identify the child to ensure her privacy. Given the family's description of their daughter as a "homebody," authorities immediately began treating the situation as potentially malicious rather than a common runaway case.
Despite the concerted efforts of authorities and countless citizens, initial searches yielded no clues about the child's whereabouts. Unknown to the search teams, she was already over 2,000 miles away in an Arizona apartment, abducted by 28-year-old Ethan Roberts. The girl had been chatting online with Roberts, who manipulated her into leaving home with him.
Unfortunately, neither the girl's parents nor the authorities had any knowledge of the chats. With no leads found throughout Virginia, the search efforts had hit a dead end. That was until one of the abducted child's friends contacted authorities with an unexpected clue: the girl's Nintendo Switch console had unexpectedly appeared online.
Roberts had allowed the child to bring along her Nintendo Switch, which went unnoticed by all involved. At the apartment, Roberts let her connect the Switch to Wi-Fi so she could "watch YouTube and download a game." However, unbeknownst to Roberts, launching a Switch game online alerts any logged-in friends, a feature by Nintendo to foster gameplay among friends.
Because of this, authorities called upon the FBI, hoping to track the Nintendo Switch. On August 14, 2022, after eleven terrifying days for the child, the FBI located the apartment complex, arrested Roberts, and safely rescued the abducted child.
Former Arizona Department of Public Safety director Frank Milstead commented on the case. "Everything's connected from Wi-Fi to LTE," said Milstead. "A cell phone, an iPad, a watch, whatever it is – you can use those things to locate people."
While some may be wary of the omnipresence of electronic devices tracking our every move, it's heartening to see an instance where it was employed for a noble cause. Thankfully, the case concluded positively in April 2023 when Roberts agreed to a plea deal and received a 30-year prison sentence for his various crimes.