Apple joins Google, HTC and others to curb smartphone theft

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Apple has entered into the “Smartphone Anti-Theft Voluntary Commitment” with HTC, Motorola, Samsung, and others, to curb the smartphone theft epidemic that has been plaguing many city streets.

Under the voluntary agreement, the manufacturers are planning to add several new security features to their smartphones going on sale after July 2015, to make for an industry standard.

Under the Commitment, manufacturers’ smartphones must: 

  1. Remote wipe the authorized user’s data (i.e., erase personal info that is added after purchase such as contacts, photos, emails, etc.) that is on the smartphone in the event it is lost or stolen.
  2. Render the smartphone inoperable to an unauthorized user (e.g., locking the smartphone so it cannot be used without a password or PIN), except in accordance with FCC rules for 911 emergency communications, and if available, emergency numbers programmed by the authorized user (e.g., “phone home”).
  3. Prevent reactivation without authorized user’s permission (including unauthorized factory reset attempts) to the extent technologically feasible (e.g., locking the smartphone as in 2 above).
  4. Reverse the inoperability if the smartphone is recovered by the authorized user and restore user data on the smartphone to the extent feasible (e.g., restored from the cloud).

While many of these features are already used by Apple, such a standard across all manufacturers could deter thieves if they know the phone they steal won’t be usable. Furthermore, the agreement gives the smartphone manufacturers backing from carriers to help execute the “kill switch” that would make the smartphone unusable once stolen.

Even with all these features on a smartphone, users must have them turned on. For example, Apple’s “Find My iPhone” feature allows users to play sound to find their device to find it, put it in “Lost Mode” that locks it with a password, and the ability to completely erase the phone data.

“We appreciate the commitment made by these companies to protect wireless users in the event their smartphones are lost or stolen,” Steve Largent, CTIA President, said in a statement. “This flexibility provides consumers with access to the best features and apps that fit their unique needs while protecting their smartphones and the valuable information they contain. At the same time, it’s important different technologies are available so that a ‘trap door’ isn’t created that could be exploited by hackers and criminals.”

The full list of smartphone manufacturers and networks taking part include Apple, Asurion, AT&T, Google, HTC America, Huawei Device USA, Motorola Mobility, Microsoft, Nokia, Samsung  America, Sprint, T-Mobile USA, US Cellular, and Verizon Wireless. in conjunction with the CTIA wireless association. 

New York  York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman said in January 2013 that one in three robberies in the US involves a stolen smartphone, and pushed for the “smartphone kill switch” to be adopted by every manufacturer. Several other cities have worked to pass legislation to make the “kill switch” necessary.

“As the sponsor of pending legislation that seeks to mandate ‘kill switch’ technology on all smartphones sold in Chicago, I commend the smartphone industry for its cooperative efforts, but will remain watchful that these commitments are both upheld and result in the shared goal of reducing smartphone thefts citywide,” Edward Burke, a Chicago Alderman, said in a statement on Tuesday.

Until Google released the Android Device Manager in August 2013, Android users didn’t have a Google-backed way to track down their stolen smartphone, and had to rely on third-party solutions. The Android Device Manager has similar features as Apple’s tracking technology.

Even with the Google technology, the caveat is every Android manufacturer doesn’t pre-package tracking technology on their smartphones like Apple does, making it unknown to some users. That will soon change.