Homeless in Vancouver: iPhone now with up to 38 percent less thieves?

Apple may finally be losing the customers it can afford to do without.

The anti-theft activation lock feature in the iOS since 2013 is being credited with a dramatic reduction of iPhone thefts.

In the first five months of 2014 iPhone thefts fell 38 percent in San Francisco, 24 percent in London, England, and 19 percent in New York City, according to widely reported figures from the IDG news service.

In the same period, thefts of Android devices continued to increase in all three cities.

According to PC World, in New York City in the same five month period that saw iPhone theft fall by 19 percent and general theft drop by 10 percent, thefts of Samsung Android devices rose by over 40 percent.

And Windows phones? Don’t worry, I’m sure thieves would steal them if they could find people who owned them.

Going in for the kill switch

The Internet tech press is chock full of stories about how both Google and Microsoft say they will now follow Apple’s lead and introduce similar anti-theft kill switches in their respective Android and Windows Phone operating systems.

Verizon didn’t wait for Google. In April, the U.S. carrier began pre-installing an anti-theft kill switch in all Samsung Android devices it sells.

Politically this is a motherhood and apple pie issue. Where there are voters with cellphones, there are politicians loudly calling on the mobile-phone industry to implement technology to allow all stolen phones to be disabled.

There are arguably very good reasons why Google and Microsoft have dragged their feet, but the time to equivocate has run out.

In February, the somewhat infamous technophobe Senator Amy Klobuchar, a Minnesota Democrat, introduced Senate bill 2032, “The Smartphone Prevention Act“, which would require a remote wipe and “kill-switch” function in every smartphone, tablet, or other personal electronic device on which commercial mobile data service is provided.

Senator Klobuchar has previously tried to criminalize YouTube and cloud computing and come off looking like a nut each time but this time she may have the right issue—who can argue against denying thieves the profits of their theft?

In California, a bill to force kill switches to be included on all mobile devices sold in the state is making its way through the legislative process.

Not only would bill SB962, introduced by state Senator Mark Leno and sponsored by San Francisco District Attorney George Gascon, dictate the inclusion of a kill switch on all mobile devices—just like Apple’s activation lock—but it would dictate that it be turned on by default, unlike Apples’s activation lock, which isn’t. Users need to go into their iOS setting and turn it on themselves.

What’s the story with all these stories?

This wave of “Apple kill switch stops theft” stories has probably been orchestrated for one reason or another: to keep the heat on the mobile phone industry and/or to pave the way for the widespread adoption of the controversial technology.

Already in April, two months ago, the main players in the U.S. mobile phone industry, the manufacturers and carriers, voluntarily agreed to include a “baseline anti-theft tool” or kill switch into smartphones.

The “Smartphone anti-theft voluntary commitment” was penned by CTIA, an association representing U.S. carriers. Signatories included Apple, Google, HTC, Huawei, Microsoft, Motorola, Nokia, and Samsung, as well as the major U.S. cellular network providers: AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile, U.S. Cellular, and Verizon.

This was why Verizon added a kill switch in April to the Samsung devices it sells.

The CTIA commitment was made by the mobile phone industry to appease politicians. The wall-to-wall coverage of the value of Apple’s kill switch may be designed to head off critics of kill switches, legislated or otherwise, and there are critics.

Computing technology moves much faster than law. Today’s solutions won’t necessarily work next week or next year. Laws are slow to enact and lead to solutions being used long past their expiry date. Where computers are concerned, good solutions become bad risks if you wait too long—Windows XP being a potential case in point.

Many freedom advocates including the Electronic Freedom Foundation (EFF) say that kill switches are a bad idea because they will actually create crime by becoming a target for hackers and repressive governments. Still others say kill switches are good in concept but legislating a specific kind is bad—that any solution “fossilized” into law will become dangerously outdated, creating security risks and holding back technological development.

Apparently we can have freedom and security, just not at the same time.

The truth of the matter is kill switches are coming

Meanwhile website, blogs, and newspapers have been trumpeting the same figures as in the second paragraph of this post, all from the same source: the IDG news service, which is apparently accessible only to paying subscribers.

This is not to say that the reported drop in iPhone theft in three cities isn’t true, but these days “truth” is rarely offered in any purer form than street drugs are.

Back in December 2013, it was widely reported that over four out of five iPhone users in San Francisco had their “kill switch” or activation lock feature enabled, or as the San Francisco Examiner put it, 80 percent of iPhone users in SF deploy Activation Lock, survey says.

A great headline based on a survey of only 313 people, conducted via social media by the San Francisco District Attorney’s office. It found that 78 percent, or 245 people, had Apple’s Find my iPhone with its activation-lock feature enabled on their phones.

The San Francisco District Attorney conducting the public relations survey was George Gascon, a staunch proponent and sponsor of the proposed California kill switch law SB962.

So it just seems a matter of time before all mobile devices come with built-in anti-theft kill switches in addition to the software kill switches most of them already contain. Oh, didn’t I mention that?

It will surely be a good day when thieves can’t use any stolen phone. Unless it’s a day after the kill switches have been hacked so that the legitimate owners can’t use them either.

Meanwhile, if you have an iPhone, you might as well make sure your activation lock feature is turned on.

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