Smartphones so desirable NY State Attorney General gets involved

iPhones and other high-end smartphones are desirable enough, small enough, and sufficiently publicly accessible that they have created a whole category of crimes, now described as “Apple picking.” 11,447 Apple products were stolen in New York City alone in the first three quarters of 2012.

I wrote in the pattern “Create desirability to produce envy” that muggers in Manhattan were only satisfied with stealing iPhones, because other devices didn’t produce the same levels of desirability. Since the book was finished, there have been several developments.

The New York Police Department now has a dedicated team of officers responding to gadget theft. They work with Apple, who provide the device’s current location using the IMEI. This allows the police to locate the device, often in the process of being re-sold.

However, there is a slight conflict of interest for the manufacturers. More stolen phones and tablets means more sales of replacement models. The people buying stolen devices may not have been in a position to afford a new smart phone of their own, but now they have one they can use it to download music, apps and movies so there is still a revenue opportunity for the manufacturer. And for the service providers, there is no real downside. Rather than having to subsidize a new handset, having customers bring their own (no matter how “hot” it is) allows carriers to profit even more from the voice and data contract they sell.

New York State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman recognizes that conflict and wants the manufacturers to do more to dissuade theft. He’s written to the main companies, asking them to comment on the problem.

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.

The carriers have been pressured by the FCC into introducing a blacklist database. AT&T and T-Mobile currently share information, so GSM phones bought from one carrier can’t be re-used on the other. Later on, Verizon and Sprint should be joining the party, although their phones use non-GSM technology and so aren’t so easy to swap between networks. The blacklist database seems to have worked well in other countries (the UK, Australia) but it doesn’t stop thieves from exporting stolen devices to countries which do not subscribe to a global blacklist (Russia, or China for instance).

Ultimately then the answer may lie with the manufacturers. Currently it’s possible to remotely wipe data from a device, but if you know your phone has been stolen and you have little faith in getting it back, wouldn’t it be nice to have a true “kill switch” that renders the phone entirely unusable? That might even be a potential positive selling point.

Reducing the desirability of a device for a specific secondary audience (thieves), while maintaining or even boosting its appeal to the primary audience should be in the interests of the manufacturers, and it is undoubtedly technically possible. Let’s see how the device manufacturers respond to Schneiderman’s letter.