SF district attorney announces drop in cell phone thefts, kill switch in Android and Windows phones 

click to enlarge George Gascon
  • courtesy @GeorgeGascon/Twitter
  • S.F. District Attorney George Gascon speaks at a press conference regarding killswitch technology.

In a joint press conference with the New York attorney general today, San Francisco District Attorney George Gascón announced that robberies targeting iPhone users in The City have dropped 38 percent since iPhone manufacturer Apple released kill-switch technology last September.

By contrast, Gascón said robberies involving Samsung devices had increased 12 percent in the same time period, suggesting that thieves were targeting smartphones that lacked kill-switch technology (Samsung introduced such technology, called Reactivation Lock in April).

The crime statistics are part of a report issued today by the Secure Our Smartphones Initiative (S.O.S.), a partnership that includes New York and San Francisco law enforcement agencies along with elected officials and consumer advocates.

Apple's kill-switch technology, called Activation Lock, was released Sept. 18 and enables iPhone users to protect their smartphone data if the device is stolen. Activation Lock is only available to users who have downloaded iOS 7 and have the "Find My iPhone" feature enabled.

Although the San Francisco District Attorney's Office sees the drop in iPhone theft as a promising indicator of kill-switch technology's effectiveness in deterring smartphone robbery, it has pushed smartphone manufactures to mandate that it is automatically enabled. This would force consumers to opt out of the security feature rather than opt in.

“It was evident from day one that a technological solution was not only possible, but that it would serve as an effective deterrent to this growing threat," Gascón said in a statement. "This past year we successfully held the wireless industry’s feet to the fire and it’s already having an impact for consumers. In the year ahead we will work to ensure this technology is deployed industry-wide, and in the most effective manner possible.”

New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman and Gascón also announced today that Google and Microsoft will follow the lead of Apple and Samsung by including kill-switch technology in their respective Android and Windows smartphones. Like Apple and Samsung, Google and Microsoft are introducing kill switches that require consumers to opt in.

"We're hopeful that they will in fact choose an opt-out solution," said Assistant District Attorney Alex Bastian.

The drop in smartphone robberies reported by S.O.S. may also provide statistical support for a California Senate bill that would require opt-out kill switches for all phones sold in the state, according to Bastian.

"[The S.O.S. report] elevates the need for the bill," Bastian said. "As the numbers show, a kill-switch solution does in fact provide safety for consumers, and a universal system would guarantee that safety."

Senate Bill 962, authored by Sen. Mark Leno, passed its first state Assembly Committee on June 17. SB 962 will need to clear several more committees and be approved by Gov. Jerry Brown before it becomes law.

“Once we ensure that nearly all smartphone owners have theft-deterrent technology installed and enabled on their phones, we will take away the financial incentive for thieves and end this crime of convenience,” Leno said of the bill.

Meanwhile, as quickly as law enforcement and technology companies promote kill switches, crooks look for ways to get around the anti-theft technology. Google searches for "activation lock bypass" have spiked since the technology was introduced last September:


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