Stolen iPhone? Bet you wish someone was taking smartphone theft seriously

"Find My iPhone" is neat, but it's time for smartphone makers and carriers to stop pretending their anti-theft measures are anything more than minimum viable products.

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A stash of stolen phones and evidence bags at a police station.

Photo by West Midlands Police/Flickr

There are heroic stories of iPhone owners tracking down their phones with the "Find My iPhone" service, and similar stories of recovery success using third-party tools like Prey. But those are the stories worth writing about. Most lifted phones and tablets just turn into stories we tell our friends and coworkers.

That's because people who are experienced at stealing smartphones know how to circumvent the location and locking tools, usually by wiping the device entirely clean and restoring it to "factory state." They don't leave Photo Stream connected to the original owner's account. And even if it's a crime of opportunity, most people don't want to travel into unknown realms to track down a device that, while not exactly cheap, isn't worth a tangle with someone who doesn't mind the occasional misdemeanor charge.

That's why it's intriguing to see a "Smartphone Summit" being called by San Francisco and New York attorney generals. Representatives of Apple, Google, Samsung, and Microsoft are due to meet and discuss the implementation of a industry-wide "kill switch" system, which could render a phone entirely inoperable, despite a thief's efforts to wipe out the phone and swap out its SIM card.

It's a real problem. As CBS News summarizes from a New York Times story:

In 2012, New York City Police said that 40 percent of all robberies involved cell phones, the Associated Press reported. Apple's iPad and iPhones alone accounted for 14 percent of all crime, according to the Times. And there were 1,829 cell phones stolen in the District of Columbia last year.

I don't know how fast you are skimming this, but just to reiterate: 14 percent of all New York City crime involved Apple iPhones and/or iPads. That doesn't include other smartphones.

Phone makers and carriers have tried to consolidate their efforts into a national database of stolen cellphones. If the IMEI number of a phone is in that database, it cannot, theoretically, be reactivated on that network. Theoretically. But the odds are not in the favor of an industry consortium devising concrete plans to lock down their digital products.

If it isn't a Norwegian teenager that unravels the plans, then it's a phone shipped to an overseas market, operating on regional carriers that have no contact with the U.S. stolen phone system. Or it could be small "workshops" with real incentives to learn deeper smartphone engineering. Quoting the Times again:

In San Francisco, the resale market for stolen phones is thriving, with a new iPhone netting a thief $400 to $500 in cash, said Edward Santos Jr., a police lieutenant who investigates robberies. The starting price of a new iPhone 5, without a contract, is $650.

Often, stolen phones are moved to a house or storage facility where middlemen erase the phone’s memory, Mr. Santos said. Clearing a phone makes it difficult for the police to prove a phone was stolen and to return it to its owner.

In at least one case, Mr. Santos said, people suspected of stealing phones were found to be hacking the phones’ unique identifying code, known as an International Mobile Station Equipment Identity, essentially erasing all digital evidence that the phone was stolen. This also makes it possible to reactivate a stolen phone, even after it has been entered into the database. Mr. Santos said he suspected that this kind of modification was widespread.

So, reluctant as any team of reps from Apple, Google, Samsung, and Microsoft might be to work together on something, let's hope they stop pretending that the anti-theft measures they have now are anything except minimum viable products, and realize that devices that are easy to steal, reconfigure, and sell are going to get stolen, reconfigured, and resold.

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