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Should cellphone makers and carriers impose more stringent anti-theft measures?

Is it time for the carriers as well as the cellphone makers themselves to impose more stringent anti-theft measures through technology?
May 7, 2013
Samsung GS4 vs iPhone 5
Cellphone theft is on the rise. According to information first published in a recent story on The New York Times, in places such as Washington and San Francisco in the U.S., over 40% of all robberies last year involved a cellphone. And in New York, 14% of all crimes equated to the theft of iPhones and iPads. To make a long story short, cellphone theft has now become a much bigger problem than ever before. Is it time for the carriers as well as the cellphone makers themselves to impose more stringent anti-theft measures through technology?

San Francisco district attorney George Gascón seems to thinks so. A little over a month ago, Gascón held a conference call with some of the largest carriers and their lobbyists in the U.S in order to discuss the need for better technological solutions to the issue of cellphone theft. He also reportedly met with an Apple executive named Michael Foulkes to talk about how Apple could improve its anti-theft technology. He’s pushing hard but so far, his efforts have been unsuccessful.

In a recent story on Time online, Gascón lamented that carriers “refused to even entertain the idea of a technological solution” to the problem. He then went on to accuse the carriers of being “motivated by profit and not social responsibility.” Whether that is true or not, he does have a point: it’s time to do something about the growing problem of cellphone theft. But is it really up to the carriers and cellphone makers? What can they really do about it?

A quick look at current solutions

Believe it or not, anti-theft solutions for cellphones do exist, and some of them have been around for quite a long time now. They exist in the form of apps, web services, and soon-to-be-implemented software features that work up to a certain point, but just haven’t been able to thwart cellphone theft completely.

F-Secure Anti-theft
F-Secure’s Anti-Theft mobile app offers a quick and easy way to protect not only your mobile devices but also your data, and the best thing about it is that it’s available for free.

It’s the same thing with the Comodo Anti-theft Free app for Android, which we already told you about a while back. There’s really no shortage of working — and free — anti-theft apps for mobile devices. But still, the government, and San Francisco D.A. George Gascón in particular, wants to see carriers and cellphone makers work together for a full-blown kill switch to be implemented. Is it really possible?

A hard lesson in not buying a cellphone

Some years ago, I inadvertently found out the answer to that question. Times were simpler back then, and when you said “top-of-the-line smartphone” everyone automatically assumed you were talking about a Nokia. The Nokia Nseries phones were new, and everybody wanted one. I knew I did, and so I jumped at the first chance of getting one that I got.

Nokia N70
Here’s what happened. I saw an online marketplace listing for a “broken” Nokia N70 that couldn’t connect to any mobile networks at all and instead showed an error message on the screen. It was the exact same error message that appeared if you used an “expired” or a non-working SIM card though, so I figured that maybe the seller just didn’t know about that.

I offered to get the Nokia N70 from the seller in exchange for a mint condition iPod nano (2nd gen), thinking that I would be able to make the N70 work. The seller agreed to my offer, and so I got a phone-less high-end smartphone in exchange for a used music player. I thought it was a steal. I had no idea…

In the end, I failed in making the N70 work as a phone again, and not only that, but when I brought it in to get checked at a local carrier’s satellite office, it was confiscated from me. Apparently, it had been reported as stolen, so they had to take it from me and there was nothing I could do about it.

I may or may not have cried.

The kill switch at work

I’m not really sure what happened back there. One possibility is that the person who sold the N70 to me knew perfectly well that it was never going to work because it was a stolen unit. Perhaps its unique identifying IMEI number was blacklisted by the local authorities and that’s why it couldn’t connect to any of the available mobile networks anymore. Maybe it got returned to its rightful owner after it was confiscated from me. Maybe not.

In any case, the incident proves that, at least in the case of carrier-tied handsets, it’s possible to implement a “kill switch” type solution to render a phone unusable (as a phone) after it has been reported as stolen. That sounds like a really good idea until you realize that somehow, it could also be used against you.

Imagine buying a cellphone or a tablet from someone and then finding out a week later that it can’t connect to your mobile network anymore. And then when you take it to your carrier’s nearest satellite office in order to get it checked, you are told that it has been reported as stolen. Imagine a store manager telling you that they have to take the device from you and that you have to leave immediately or else they are going to call the police. This is one of the many possible scenarios that you may find yourself in once the plan to implement this so-called kill switch for mobile devices gets fully deployed.

Search for alternatives

The fact of the matter is, there are many ways through which the power to use a kill switch may be abused. Besides which, there’s really no way to easily implement the use of such. Stolen phones change hands too quickly. And making it illegal to modify IMEI numbers in an effort to prevent theft would be just as effective as making it illegal for people to murder with guns.

A better solution may yet be found if legislators would perhaps look beyond the cellphone makers and the carriers, and try to fix what’s causing cellphone thefts to occur in the first place. Many bright minds are already working on some possible solutions, but an ultimate kill switch may not be one of them.