Microsoft, Google not doing enough on phone thefts, says San Francisco district attorney

George Gascón said he thinks Apple and Samsung are progressing on anti-theft features, but not so Google and Microsoft.

San Francisco's district attorney says he's optimistic that Apple and Samsung are making progress on a system that would render stolen smartphones unusable, but the same isn't true of Microsoft and Google.

On Thursday representatives of Apple and Samsung visited George Gascón at his office in San Francisco to demonstrate their work.

The four major players in the smartphone industry have come under pressure from the law enforcement community, led by Gascón and New York State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, to do something about the increasing number of smartphone thefts across the U.S. The thefts often involve force and violence and in many cases phone users are threatened with guns or knives. On at least one occasion, a phone user was killed for their iPhone.

Apple's response has been an activation lock that requires a user ID and password to reset or reactivate a phone that has been locked, disabled or wiped. Samsung is installing "Lojack for Mobile Devices" on new models of its Galaxy S4.

Embedded in the phone's firmware, the system allows owners to tracks the position of stolen devices when they connect to a network. The company will also work with law enforcement to help get the phone returned and to build a case against the person who stole it, said John Livingstone, CEO of Vancouver-based Absolute Software, which makes the Lojack software system.

Because of its place in the low-level code inside the phone, Livingstone said the Lojack software "will survive most any and all ROM reflashes and attempts to root the device."

"I have to say, there are clear improvements in the technology we saw, both with the new Galaxy phones and the iOS 7 operating system," Gascón said in an interview Friday. "I think there is still work that needs to be done. We want to make sure the manufacturers supply what we call a persistent, universal system that has a kill switch that is free to the consumer."

Samsung's current system costs users an annual $30 subscription and Gascón said he "made very clear" to the company that it "needs to be made available free to the consumer."

At the meeting Thursday, state and federal security experts attempted to circumvent the antitheft features, as a thief might if the phone was stolen. The DA's office said it wasn't ready to release details of those tests, in part because some of the software involved is still under development.

When asked if he believed Apple and Samsung have heard his message on smartphone thefts, Gascón said he thinks that is the case.

"I am not sure that's still the answer with Google and Microsoft and that's why we're going to continue to insist and work with them to move them forward," he said.

Asked if Absolute Software was talking with the two on the Lojack software, CEO Livingstone said his company is "happy to continue to have discussions with Google and Microsoft."

Whatever the current state of development, Apple, Samsung, Microsoft and Google have the same deadline.

"We expect these technological solutions to be available to the public next year and we are going to be holding firm to that demand," he said.

If the companies don't make progress, he held open the option of legislative and judicial moves against the companies. New York State AG Schneiderman has already hinted at as much, citing two parts of state law that deal with deceptive trade practices when he first contacted them about his concerns.

Another option is monetary. Gascón also said he is looking to get the support of those that control major publicly -owned investment funds.

"If we have actors within the industry that refuse to move forward, then we should look at divesting public investments from these companies," he said. "I hope we will get voluntary industry compliance."

Martyn Williams covers mobile telecoms, Silicon Valley and general technology breaking news for The IDG News Service. Follow Martyn on Twitter at @martyn_williams. Martyn's e-mail address is martyn_williams@idg.com

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