Crime pays

Apple and others could stop smartphone theft. Here’s why they don’t

May 2, 2013
May 2, 2013

Now that we all love carrying tiny computers worth hundreds of dollars in our hands and waving them around at every opportunity, smartphone theft has become common. According to the US Federal Communications Commission, 30% to 40% of robberies in major US cities involve smartphones.

In Europe and Australia, stolen phones can be permanently “blacklisted” by carriers, making them useless, at least in their home countries. In the United States, this wasn’t possible until April 2012, when lawmakers lobbied the four largest US cell carriers—Verizon, AT&T, T-Mobile and Sprint—to develop a plan to disable stolen phones.

A year later, not much has changed, as the New York Times documented today. That’s partially because phone makers like Apple and Google are reluctant to make phones hard to steal and also because privacy advocates don’t want them to.

Thieves can just send the phones overseas. No access to a carrier? No problem. Just send the phones to another country, usually Africa or China, where they can still fetch a pretty penny. Plans to share the identities of stolen phones are in the works to help countries combat  theft internationally—the US is developing one with Mexico, for instance.

Thieves can just hack the phones. Incapacitating stolen phones depends on knowing their International Mobile Station Equipment Identity, but it’s possible to erase or alter this identifier, so the phone can be used again. While it might be possible to make it harder to change the identifier, privacy advocates at the Electronic Freedom Foundation say that consumers should have the ability to change their phone’s ID to avoid less desirable tracking.

The phone companies don’t want to make a kill-switch. Law enforcement officials from San Francisco’s District Attorney to Washington, D.C.’s chief of police say that companies aren’t doing enough to shut off stolen phones because they profit when consumers need to replace their phones. Technologists say that it would be possible to make a kill-switch for stolen phones, or at least make the steps needed to modify them difficult enough to make theft less lucrative.

Lawmakers, carriers, and phone makers say they are working, mostly independently, to limit thefts, but most analysts say that the it will come down to companies’ willingness to make phone software theft deterrent. In the meantime, a new iPhone that costs $650 can be fetched for $400 to $500 in cash in San Francisco.

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