State Governments Target Smartphone Thefts

Growing coalition ramps up pressure on industry to help stop smartphone theft epidemic.
Top government officials around the world are teaming up to pressure the mobile-communications industry to create and deploy technologies that help thwart rampant smartphone and tablet theft.

Leaders of the "Secure Our Smartphones" [S.O.S.] initiative, including New York State attorney general Eric Schneiderman and San Francisco district attorney George Gascon, want industry to find technical solutions that will remove the economic value of mobile phones and tablets, in an effort to help dry up expanding secondary markets for stolen devices.

While mobile devices that are reported stolen in the U.S. are no longer able to access domestic cell networks, they can still be reactivated in foreign countries. In Hong Kong, for example, black-market iPhones can bring as much as $2,000 apiece. The result is a global epidemic of often violent street crime known as "apple picking."

Officials said the marketplace for stolen phones is too large and lucrative for any one community to stop. Accordingly, the latest big-city leader to join as an international partner and co-chair of the campaign is Boris Johnson, the mayor of London.

[ Researchers share hacking techniques in an effort to improve car security systems. Read How To Hack A Car's Computer. ]

Johnson, citing the global nature of the problem, admonished the industry to "take this issue seriously" and come up technological innovations that would disable the devices in any environment and eliminate incentives for street-level criminals to steal them.

Johnson is taking a hard line on the problem -- with good reason. In London, offenses such as pickpocketing and bag snatching have risen more 15% this year, largely driven by the theft of mobile phones. About 10,000 mobile devices are stolen every month in that city.

As a result, Johnson recently wrote to U.S. CEOs of major manufacturers of mobile phones, urging them to do more to tackle the problem. He said he plans to meet with them in September to discuss what they plan to do about it.

By teaming up with international partners like Johnson, Schneiderman said, "We are sending the huge international corporations that dominate the smartphone industry a very powerful message demanding that they be good corporate citizens and take responsible steps to ensure the safety of our consumers."

In New York City, the number of "apple picking" incidents has risen by 40% over the last year, while 50% of robberies in San Francisco last year targeted mobile communications devices.

The S.O.S. campaign, launched earlier this year, brings together a coalition of not only top international government leaders but also local prosecutors, police chiefs, attorneys general, state and city comptrollers and public safety activists.