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Thursday, June 13, 2013

Smartphone Makers Pressed to Address Growing Theft Problem

Seeking to curb the nationwide increase in smartphone thefts, New York State’s attorney general, Eric Schneiderman, and the San Francisco district attorney, George Gascón, on Thursday announced an initiative to try to address the problem.

The Secure Our Smartphones initiative, headed by the two men, includes prosecutors, political officials, law enforcement officials and consumer advocates from more than a dozen states. It will push the smartphone industry to develop technologies that would discourage theft and dry up the market for those who sell stolen devices.

The announcement came just before Mr. Schneiderman and Mr. Gascón were scheduled to meet on Thursday afternoon with representatives from Apple, Samsung, Google’s Motorola unit and Microsoft, which together make up about 90 percent of the smartphone market.

“It is totally unacceptable that we have an epidemic of crime that we believe can be eliminated if the technological fixes that we believe are available are put into place,” Mr. Schneiderman said.

The coalition is encouraging manufacturers to equip all smartphones with a “kill switch.” A consumer would be able to tell a provider that a cellphone has been stolen, and the phone â€" like a stolen credit card â€" would be rendered inoperable. “For the thieves who would steal them,” Mr. Schneiderman said, the phones would be “nothing more than a paperweight.”

Lost and stolen cellphones cost consumers over $30 billion in 2012. About 113 smartphones are lost or stolen each minute in the United States and, according to the Federal Communications Commission, cellphone thefts account for 30 to 40 percent of all robberies nationwide. In New York City, the thefts jumped 40 percent last year alone.

But the statistics, Mr. Schneiderman said, “don’t tell the full story.” Attending the announcement were Paul Boken and Annie Palazzolo, the father and sister of Megan Boken, a 23-year-old who was shot and killed in St. Louis in August 2012 during an attempted smartphone robbery.

“The industry has the moral and the social obligation to fix this problem,” Mr. Gascón said. “There are very few things that can be fixed with a technological solution, and this is one of them.”

Apple on Monday said that its next mobile operating system, iOS 7, to be released in the fall, has a new feature called Activation Lock that will help thwart theft.

When asked about Apple’s announcement, Mr. Gascón said that “Apple has been very vague” about the Activation Lock system, but both he and Mr. Schneiderman stressed that they would not judge the new feature until they could see how it actually works. An Apple representative was not immediately available for comment.

Though he was not clear about how far the coalition would go to make manufacturers comply with its demands, Mr. Schneiderman said, “The stakes here are very high and we intend to pursue this with every tool in our toolbox.”