About 113 smartphones are lost or stolen every minute in the United States and prosecutors here have lost patience. On Thursday during a Smartphone Summit, top law enforcement officials from New York City and San Francisco called upon leading smartphone makers to create a "kill switch" solution for stolen phones.
The prosecutors met with representatives of Apple, Google, Samsung and Microsoft to discuss ways for stopping smartphone thieves in their tracks, according to Bloomberg News. New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman described the "epidemic of crime" as "unacceptable" given the possibilities for technological fixes.
Many law enforcement officials have accused phone carriers and makers of intentionally dragging their feet on developing anti-theft features. That's because consumers whose phones get stolen typically have little choice but to pay up for a new phone.
"The carriers are not innocent in this whole game," said Cathy L. Lanier, chief of the police department of the District of Columbia, in an earlier New York Times interview. "They are making profit off this."
The problem of phone theft is out of control in many of the biggest U.S. cities, according to the New York Times. Cellphones represented the target in almost half of all robberies in San Francisco and 42 percent of robberies in Washington last year. Theft of iPhones and iPads accounted for 14 percent of all New York City crimes in 2012.
Current smartphone security measures don't do much to stop thieves from hacking passcodes, unlocking the devices and wiping them clean to resell in the U.S. or overseas. But the new pressure from U.S. law enforcement may help to get new security features into future devices.
Apple announced a new "activation lock" feature for its new operating system that requires an Apple ID and password to reactivate phones. The iPhone maker already has a "Find My iPhone" feature that can allow users to remotely track lost or stolen phones and erase private data.
Samsung has also promised to create the desired "kill switch" feature for future phones, said George Gascon, district attorney of San Francisco. But Gascon still pressed Samsung to make the feature available for free and able to work regardless of the smartphone's status.
Perhaps biometric measures could also help enhance smartphone security down the road. A Google patent filing uncovered recently showed how the Internet giant envisions smartphone owners making goofy faces to unlock their phones.
Photo: Ben Margot/AP Photo
Jeremy Hsu has been working as a science and technology journalist in New York City since 2008. He has written on subjects as diverse as supercomputing and wearable electronics for IEEE Spectrum. When he’s not trying to wrap his head around the latest quantum computing news for Spectrum, he also contributes to a variety of publications such as Scientific American, Discover, Popular Science, and others. He is a graduate of New York University’s Science, Health & Environmental Reporting Program.