New York calls on phone makers to help deter theft

In letters to the top four cellphone makers, the state attorney general hints at legal trouble if they don't cooperate

The New York State attorney general has sent letters to the chief executives of Apple, Microsoft, Google and Samsung asking them for help in combating cellphone theft and hinting he may pursue legal action if they don't cooperate.

The theft of expensive smartphones is on the rise across the U.S., and police chiefs and state and district attorneys have been pushing the cellphone makers and carriers to do more to combat the problem. So far, they've had little success.

In the letters, New York Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman cites two parts of state law that deal with deceptive trade practices and asks for each company to designate a representative to work with him in New York on the problem.

"I would like to know what Apple is doing to combat this growing public safety problem," Schneiderman said in his letter to Apple. He asks the same question to the other cellphone makers.

"In particular, I seek to understand why companies that can develop sophisticated handheld electronics, such as the products manufactured by Apple, cannot also create technology to render stolen devices inoperable and thereby eliminate the expanding black market on which they are sold," he wrote.

For many in the law enforcement community, this is a fundamental question. Smartphones rely on an Internet connection, have security measures to facilitate e-commerce and stop unauthorized users from accessing the phone, and in many cases include GPS positioning, yet it remains all too easy for thieves to steal phones, wipe them and resell them.

In reaction to pressure last year, the cellphone industry created databases that would hold the network identification numbers of stolen cellphones. In theory, a stolen cellphone is blocked from being used on any U.S. network, but the databases are not yet universally used and don't have good international coverage, so a stolen phone, even one that's blocked in the U.S., could be used overseas.

Schneiderman's letter notes claims each company has made toward the security of the devices.

"Apple has made repeated public representations with regard to safety. On the first page of Apple's website promoting the features of Apple's mobile operating system 'iOS,' Apple proclaims 'safety and security by design,'" he wrote.

Schneiderman then notes his "concern" that the companies might have fallen foul of state law.

"The impression to the consumer is that Apple devices include an array of features that, together, ensure safety and prevent unauthorized use," Schneiderman wrote. "This drives sales and creates goodwill with customers. I am concerned, however, that Apple may have failed to live up to these representations, limiting its focus to information security, without providing safeguards that would truly deter theft and thereby protect the safety of your customers."

In New York, 11,447 cases of stolen iPhones and iPads were recorded in the first nine months of this year, a rise of 3,280 over the previous year. In those robberies, at least one person had been killed for their iPhone and others have been stabbed or violently attacked.

The picture is similar across the U.S. An IDG News Service investigation into cellphone thefts in San Francisco found one-quarter of the 579 robberies that took place between November and April this year involved a knife or a gun. Half of the robberies involved physical force.

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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