Mobile device theft is being called an epidemic. Apple tweaks iOS 7; device makers and law enforcement also team on anti-theft technology.
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In an effort to reduce cellphone theft, San Francisco district attorney George Gascón and New York State attorney general Eric Schneiderman on Thursday launched a nationwide initiative called Secure Our Smartphones (SOS) to encourage phone makers to implement technology in their devices that hinders the ability of thieves to profit by reselling stolen smartphones.
"The epidemic of violent street crime involving the theft and resale of mobile devices is a very real and growing threat in communities all across America," Schneiderman said in a statement.
The crime-fighting initiative, which involves law enforcement officials from dozens of states and counties around the U.S., as well as industry players like Apple, Google and Microsoft, will focus on several areas: analyzing crime patterns; the viability of theft deterrence technology; the effect of the economics of device theft on the mobile phone industry; implementing theft deterrence technology in partnership with industry; and pressing for industry involvement and public awareness.
Last year, roughly half of all robberies in San Francisco involved a mobile communication device, a figure exceeding the 30% to 40% range that Consumer Reports says represents the national average.
Mobile device robberies can have serious or fatal consequences. In April 2012, a 26-year-old chef on his way home to the Bronx, N.Y., was killed for his iPhone. Last month, two men stole an iPhone from a 27-year-old tourist in San Francisco, inflicting serious knife wounds to the victim's face and throat. And in February, three people suffered knife wounds in a fight over an iPhone on a subway platform in Queens, N.Y.
"Unlike other types of crimes, smartphone theft can be eradicated with a simple technological solution," Gascón said in a statement.
Law enforcement officials have dubbed the trend "Apple-Picking," a catchy coinage that downplays the theft of mobile devices running Android and Windows Phone operating systems.
Perhaps sensitive to this borrowing of its brand, Apple is the first phone maker to answer the call for technological theft deterrence. At its annual developers conference earlier this week, Apple announced that its forthcoming iOS 7 mobile operating system will include a phone hobbling system called Activation Lock.
Activation Lock augments Apple's Find My iPhone service, which allows users to track the location of their iOS device on a map and remotely erase it, provided the device is powered on. Activation Lock won't prevent iOS devices from being turned off or from being disassembled and sold as components, but it will prevent Find My iPhone from being turned off without the owner's Apple ID and password (unless the device was previously jailbroken, presumably).
As a result, the iPhone's owner should have an easier time erasing or locating his or her device. And whoever has the stolen device will be unable to reactivate it. Instead, the device will display a message indicating that it was lost and erased until the owner's Apple ID and password are entered.
Attorney general Schneiderman and district attorney Gascón on Monday issued a joint statement expressing appreciation for Apple's effort, but they said they'd reserve judgment until they have a better understanding of how the technology works.
One possible consequence of Apple's push to secure iOS device may be an increase in the value of jailbreak exploits.
Google did not respond to a request to comment on whether it is developing anti-theft technology for a future Android release.