This editorial will appear in Tuesday’s print edition.
You’ve probably seen the footage on TV news. A person waiting for a bus or walking down a street holding a smartphone is attacked, often by an organized crew. The phone is stolen in the blink of an eye – as well as any personal information stored on it.
Off it goes to be used by the thief or, more often the case, resold on the secondary market.
The problem of smartphone theft has become so pervasive that it has its own name – “Apple-picking,” because so many of the items are Apple iPhones. Nationally, a third of all robberies involve the theft of a mobile phone or other mobile device, such as a tablet. The rate is even higher in some cities – 40 percent in New York City, for example.
Sadly, theft isn’t the worst of it. Some owners have been badly injured or even killed during thefts.
There’s no reason for this. All it would take is a simple “kill switch” built into mobile devices to make them less attractive to thieves. It would be the equivalent of canceling a stolen credit card.
After a device is stolen, the owner could go online and disable it, making it useless for reuse or resale. It would prevent erasure of the owner’s data and only allow the registered owner to unlock it or turn off the GPS homing signal.
Who would steal a mobile device if it became common knowledge that it would no longer work — become a shiny paperweight, essentially – within minutes?
Manufacturers have been reluctant to put the kill switch in their phones, perhaps for mercenary reasons. After all, when a device is stolen, two new markets are created: The previous owner buys a new device, and the new owner signs up for service. For the industry, it’s a win-win. It has nothing to gain – except customer gratitude – for installing a kill switch.
If the makers don’t install the switches, they could be compelled to by law. But a new coalition of prosecutors, lawmakers and consumer advocates – the Secure Our Smartphones Initiative – is hoping to convince the industry to get on board voluntarily. Apple, in fact, just announced that its next operating system, iOS7, will have a feature called Activation Lock when it’s released this fall.
If that is, indeed, the kind of kill-switch technology that will deter theft, then Apple will deserve thanks for (belatedly) leading the way. Prosecutors who have been rebuffed by Apple in the past are reserving judgment, waiting to see how effective it is.
Mobile device makers should realize that having a kill switch could be an attractive marketing device. Consumers who are forking out big bucks for these devices would be more interested in ones that could be quickly shut down if stolen. Given the prominence of mobile devices in modern society, the makers have an obligation to their customers to make them less vulnerable to theft.