DC police chief accuses carriers of complicity in cell phone thefts

Today the New York Times published a piece on the explosion of cellphone thefts, the rise of the black market systems that wipe the phones and resell them, and the efforts - or alleged lack thereof - of carriers and manufacturers in not doing enough to prevent the thefts in the first place. The piece approaches the problem from all the wrong angles, and here's why...

Things go south almost immediately with a quote from District of Columbia Chief of Police Cathy L. Lanier, who says "The carriers are not innocent in this whole game. They are making a profit off this." Technically, yes, if a customer has to walk into a carrier store and buy a new phone because their previous one was stolen, then the carrier can take a profit on it. But the same rule applies if somebody steals my laptop or my car or my coffee when I'm not looking. I'm going to have to go buy a new one, and the seller is going to take a profit. That's how business works. Of course, with all of those excepting my unattended cup of coffee I can purchase insurance to cover their replacement cost on the occasion of all sorts of events, even thefts. That includes that smartphone.

I don't want to go down the "blame the victim" route, but let's be honest here: protecting something you hold in your hand and making it less desirable to purloin is not the job of manufacturers or carriers. In fact, they're in the business of making devices more desirable, because they want you to buy them. That a product being more attractive to legitimate buyers also makes it more attractive to thieves is just the way things are.

Once you walk out of the store with that shiny new iPhone or Lumia or Galaxy or BlackBerry, it's no longer the carrier's or manufacturer's responsibility to maintain physical security of the device. It's yours. Chief Lanier's jurisdiction saw a record of 1829 cellphone thefts in 2012, an average of nearly seven per day.

New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg singled out the theft of Apple iPhones and iPads accounted for 14% of crimes, supposedly making them single-handedly responsible for an uptick in the overall crime level for the city. While there's little doubt that many New Yorkers were robbed specifically for their Apple-branded devices, that 14% involves all crimes where iPhones and iPads were stolen, not just people who were targeted for daring to brandish an iPhone in public.

Continuing to harp on the "iPhone thefts driving rising crime rates" theme, we have to consider that the iPhone and iPad are highly popular devices. They sell incredibly well and report after report have shown that owners use them more heavily than those who have purchased other devices. There are more people who are using iPhones and other smartphones on the streets, and thus more targets of opportunity.

As The New York Times points out, carriers and manufacturers are working to make stealing smartphones they sell more of a pain. The major US carriers have partnered with law enforcement across the country to launch a stolen phone database. It is essentially a list of the unique IMEI numbers (International Mobile station Equipment Identity) from phones that have been reported stolen. Once a phone's on the list, in theory an attempt to activate it on the network should throw up red flags.

Unfortunately for these efforts, if you know what you're doing it's relatively easy to modify a phone's IMEI and circumvent the database. There's no law against it, but that's something that New York Representative Eliot Engel (D) wants to change with the introduction of the Cell Phone Theft Protection Act to the United States Congress. The legislation is intended to discourage the theft of cell phones by "requiring wireless commercial services to cut off service to a stolen phone" by creating a national stole phone database (done - independently by carriers and law enforcement without prompting of the federal government), requiring all phones in the US to have unique ID numbers (done - the IMEI was created by the industry for exactly this reason), mandating that carriers make it possible for customers to remotely wipe their devices (manufacturers are on this), and making it illegal to alter a phone's IMEI.

The last point is really the only "new" item to US law in Engel's legislation. It's already against the law in countries like the UK and Latvia to alter a phone's IMEI, expressly with the goal of suppressing phone theft and resale. There's just one rub, though: the act of stealing is already illegal. Altering an IMEI is trivial compared to actually stealing the phone, making doing so illegal isn't going to cause any crook to second guess what they're doing.

Find My iPhone

Manufacturers too have been on the track of working to make their phones less desirable to be stolen, or at the very least protect the data of the owner once they are. Apple, BlackBerry, Microsoft, and others offer built-in services for their devices that enable you to remotely track, ring, lock, and wipe devices on your account (BlackBerry and Microsoft also allow you to display a message on the device). These sort of features aren't built into Android by Google, however, unless you're on a Google Apps account. Numerous third-party apps are available to add remote security features to Android devices.

The issue with those services is one of consumer awareness. Most simply aren't aware that they have the option to remotely wipe a device if it's been stolen. Many would probably be pleased by the ability to remotely command their phone make a sound so they can figure out where they left it last night.

Of course, all of these services do no good if the phone's radios are turned off - once it's off the internet, no amount of back-end services are going to enable you to remotely wipe the phone. Criminals have grown saavy enough to know that the first thing you do after stealing somebody's phone is turn it off, if not immediately wipe it yourself. To imply, as Chief Lanier, Mayor Bloomberg, Representative Engel, and others have, that iPhones and Galaxies and Lumias are driving crime rates and that it's the responsibility of carriers and manufacturers to do something about it is absurd.

Carriers and manufacturers have been for some time working to minimize the incentive to steal smartphones. They're operating on market forces; consumers don't like it when the smartphone they've come to rely upon is stolen, so the industry has an incentive of their own to make it less desirable to steal them in the first place. The manufacturers and carriers that build the best systems to protect the data on a smartphone (and that's usually the most distressing part to anybody who has lost possession of their device) and do the best job of marketing that to customers will reap the benefits from customers who opt to buy their product.

The same game played out nearly a century ago as the automobile. As automobiles began to grow in popularity, so did theft of the new horseless carriages. Manufacturers eventually began to include alarms and immobilizers to deter against vehicle theft. Today, cars can be equipped with two-way alarm systems that alert you of exactly what's happening to your in distress automobile. But that hasn't stopped grand theft auto in the slightest sense. There are more cars on the road today than at any time in history, and everything from expensive and security-laden new Cadillac Escalade SUVs to old Honda Accord and Toyota Camry sedans continue to be stolen every day. If something is desirable, thieves will find a way to get their hands on it.

As technology advances, so will the techniques of criminals. No amount of technology is going to make it any less desirable to steal the smartphone I hold in my hand. It's an expensive piece of technology, and while we can do much to safeguard the data it holds, that data isn't what thieves are usually after - it's the hardware itself. Protecting my phone once I've walked away from the sales desk in the carrier store is my responsibility and my responsibility only. I don't hold Starbucks as responsible for the physical security of my coffee nor would I consider Honda complicit if somebody stole by car.

Just because it's a popular target for thieves doesn't mean make my smartphone any different.

Source: The New York Times