Op-Ed: To stop thieves, a phone kill switch

Op-Ed Published in the New York Daily News

By George Gascón and Eric T. Schneiderman

In communities large and small, the story is the same. Most types of property crime are down, but one category has spiked: the often violent theft of smartphones. With these crimes reaching epidemic levels, an international call to action has been triggered, demanding an industry-generated solution rooted in effective deterrence.

A few weeks ago, our offices teamed with state and federal security experts to test anti-theft features on Apple and Samsung products.

It was part of an effort by the Secure Our Smartphones Initiative — a coalition of district attorneys, police chiefs and other concerned officials that now also includes London Mayor Boris Johnson — to persuade cell phone makers to install automatic fail-safes, perhaps even kill switches, to render devices inoperable if stolen.

We appreciate the efforts by Samsung and Apple to improve the security of their devices thus far. But the stakes are too high to take for granted that they and other smartphone manufacturers will do the right thing.

Nationally, one in three thefts involves a mobile communications device. It’s so prevalent, this new category of crime has its own name: “apple picking.” Last year, 50% of robberies in San Francisco targeted such a device. In New York City, the number was 20%, a 40% increase from the year before. Consumer Reports estimates that 1.6 million Americans were victimized by smartphone thieves last year.

Nor is this violence confined to the U.S. In London, smartphone thefts have caused a 15% increase in robberies this year even as the overall crime rate has dropped.

Too many of these cases turn violent, even deadly, as innocent people are stabbed or shot for their phones. One such victim was 23-year-old Megan Boken, who was visiting St. Louis last August when she was killed by a gun-wielding thief who wanted her iPhone.

Local law enforcement agencies cannot stem this deadly tide alone. Thieves are feeding a massive global marketplace that is simply too lucrative to stop without an industrywide solution.

Thieves sell to unscrupulous merchants who pay hundreds of dollars for phones — no questions asked — and then “jailbreak” them. They unlock the units, erase their data, reprogram them and put them up for resale. Some are even sold to reputable merchants; the phone you buy at the local outlet of a major electronics chain could be contraband.

But the biggest bucks are in overseas sales. In Hong Kong, for example, iPhones are worth upward of $2,000 apiece, and even units cut off from domestic cell networks can be reactivated to work in foreign countries. There is so much money to be made that Hezbollah turned to cell phone trafficking to fund its terrorist activities.

As for the manufacturers, they rake in an estimated $30 billion a year replacing lost and stolen phones.

There is a solution. A factory-installed security measure — one that phone owners would have to opt out of, rather than opting in — could automatically render purloined devices inoperable on any network, anywhere in the world. No resale value, no thefts.

Manufacturers must accept responsibility for their customers’ safety. There’s precedent. In the 1960s, the public demanded seat belts in cars, but automakers balked. Not until government intervened did seat belts become standard equipment. Now, no one would consider buying a vehicle without this basic safety feature.

Three decades later, with auto thefts at epidemic levels, carmakers took the initiative and implemented technological fixes to thwart thieves.

Cell phone makers have a choice: Follow the wrong example or the right one. They should act before the choice is made for them.

Schneiderman, New York’s attorney general, and Gascón, San Francisco’s District Attorney, are co-chairmen of the Secure Our Smartphones Initiative.

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