This article first appeared in Cult of Mac Magazine.
Apple devices are on the most wanted list for thieves who snatch smartphones and tablets out of the hands of distracted commuters in big cities.
This type of theft is so easy and generally without consequence that it’s become known as “Apple picking.” The Cupertino company has been on the forefront of trying to curb these crimes, dating back to the Find My iPhone app in 2010 and the new Touch ID fingerprint sensor for the iPhone 5s. Apple has also added a new i0S 7 feature called Activation Lock, which many are dubbing the “kill switch.”
“As a consumer, I love the idea of a kill switch for the device that I, as the owner, can invoke, but giving that type of power to my carrier is another thing.”
In doing so, Apple has responded to further pressure from authorities who are inundated with cases involving iPhone and iPad crime. (See our investigation into lost and stolen iPhones on Craigslist for more.) But prosecutors in New York and San Francisco, where about half of all crimes involve smartphones, were initially lukewarm on the feature but say they are now optimistic after seeing it in action.
The industry insiders Cult of Mac sounded out, not so much.
“To really make this work, the ‘kill switch’ would need to be wired to carrier networks, so that as soon as the device’s IMEI shows up on the network, the device is disabled by the carrier,” said Tom Kemp, CEO of Centrify, a company that provides unified identity services across data center, cloud and mobile for businesses. “As a consumer, I love the idea of a kill switch for the device that I, as the owner, can invoke, but giving that type of power to my carrier is another thing.”
As smartphone use grows — nearly half of Americans own one — so has iCrime. According to recent comScore data, Apple owns almost 40 percent of the smartphone market, more than its next closest competitors Samsung and HTC combined, with 23 percent and 8.7 percent, respectively. But part and parcel with Apple’s success and their distinctive design aesthetic is the fact that Apple products are an easy targets for a quick snatch-and-resell.
“How much would mugging decrease if your wallet was worth $0? Essentially, that’s what Apple is doing with its new kill switch feature – making your smartphone worthless, ideally. But, who is it really worthless for in the end?” said David Anderson, director of product for smartphone insurance company ProtectYourBubble. “Smartphone thieves often resell stolen devices on the secondary market…Unknowing consumers will purchase devices from sites like eBay and Amazon to cut costs but (will) end up receiving a ‘killed’ device in the mail.”
Companies that survive on tracing stolen gadgets are also not worried that the kill switch will sound the death knell for their businesses. “Unfortunately for consumers, Apple’s tracking and other anti-theft measures are also fairly easy to disable. People are going to continue to steal iPhones and hackers will find a way around the kill switch. It can be as simple as jailbreaking the phone,” said Ken Westin, founder of GadgetTrak. Most of GadgetTrak’s customers are tracing Apple devices — check out the live map — and use of the service has led to a few spectacular recoveries like this one from Kansas to Mexico.
Which brings up another point: whether Apple should be partnering with authorities rather than potentially enabling users to pursue their stolen iPhones
Maybe Apple should be partnering with authorities rather than enabling their customers to pursue their stolen iPhones.
Absolute Software, which says it has recovered 29,000 devices in 100 countries to date, recently launched a partnership with Samsung and says one with Apple is very possible. They work with police and discourage people from trying to get their gadgets back, rogue style.
“Deactivating a device with Activation Lock so that an unauthorized user is unable to use it or sell it can have a positive impact on deterring theft. However, the value of this capability is limited and could lead to encouragement of owners trying to recover devices from thieves themselves,” said Ward Clapham, vice president of recovery services at Absolute. “Self-recovery can be dangerous – even fatal. The best case scenario is for the user to rely on trained professionals to work with law enforcement to recover the device and pursue any criminal charges that may result.”
iPhone users who keep their smartphones mute in their pockets out of fear may find the new service makes it once again OK to stumble down a crowded sidewalk while checking email.
The iWatch might be a really popular theft target.
“With the kill switch, you will no longer feel unsafe using your iPhone on a city street. The kill switch makes the iPhone a much less desirable target for thieves — they’ll have to go back to nicking gold watches and fancy handbags,” says Dave Howell, founder and CEO of Avatron Software, which makes a number of productivity apps. “With this feature, Apple is responding to rising iPhone theft rates, but the company may also been preparing for the launch of the iWatch. The iWatch might be a really popular theft target. The kill switch is a neat, thoughtful feature but it won’t move the market-share needle.”
Howell, a former Apple software engineering manager whose team includes a number of veteran Mac programmers, says he doesn’t have any inside knowledge about the kill switch but that the service fits into Apple’s general ethos.
“I know Apple’s been working hard for some years to make iPhone as safe as possible…Apple has always garnered a reputation for designing for the benefit of users, even when it hurts sales. Certainly preventing theft will put a dent in replacement iPhone revenues.”
This article first appeared in Cult of Mac Magazine.