Law enforcement: iPhone theft isn't the only crime iOS 7 could help reduce

Forget iTunes Radio, thin fonts, and multitasking. The most important new thing about iOS 7 might be that your friendly neighborhood police officer loves it.

That’s right: In New York and elsewhere around the country, law enforcement officials are actively encouraging iPhone and iPad users to upgrade to Apple’s new mobile operating system. Why? Because the new Activation Lock feature in iOS 7 makes the phone very difficult to use or to wipe and resell if it gets stolen. Police and prosecutors hope that this technological development will lead to a reduction in smartphone thefts.

Law enforcement officials joined forces to pressure smartphone manufacturers to improve device security.

“Finding technical solutions that will remove the economic value of stolen smartphones is critical to ending the national epidemic of violent street crimes commonly known as ‘Apple Picking,’” New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman said in a written statement provided to Macworld. “More than 100 smartphones are lost or stolen each minute in the United States, and too many of those thefts turn violent or deadly.”

That’s why Schneiderman joined forces over the last year with San Francisco District Attorney General George Gascón to form Secure Our Smartphones, a group dedicated to pushing smartphone manufacturers to adopt new security features. Touch ID, the new fingerprint-activated security feature on the iPhone 5s, represents one way that security technology may help prevent theft. But iOS 7 may be the first sign that the efforts of Secure Our Smartphones are bearing fruit, as it will also protect hundreds of millions of older iOS devices.

“Apple has been listening,” said Stephanie Ong Stillman, a spokesperson for the San Francisco prosecutor. “They listened to us, and to consumers.”

As detailed in Macworld’s iOS 7 overview, once Activation Lock is enabled, someone who finds or steals your device can’t disable Find My iPhone (or iPad or iPod touch) on the device without knowing both your Apple ID and that Apple ID’s account password. And without those credentials, the person who has your lost device can’t erase data from it, either. Furthermore, if you designate your device as lost, whoever is in possession of it can’t restore or reactivate it—the phone displays only a phone number and a custom message about contacting you.

NYPD

Earlier versions of iOS included a passcode lock, and the Find My iPhone feature. But despite those attempts at securing iPhones, according to both New York and San Francisco officials,  smartphone theft was the motive behind more than 50 percent of all robberies in their cities. Even more worrisome was the growing number of deadly encounters emerging from such robberies.

During last weekend’s iPhone 5c and 5s launch, New York Police officers set up information tables at Apple Stores and Best Buy locations throughout the city, urging people to register their phones with the city’s Operation ID program, which is designed to return phones to their original owners—and to upgrade to iOS 7 to help prevent theft over the long term.

The department says that between May and mid-September of this year, officers recovered 99 iPhones and seven iPads using the program, and made 159 arrests along the way. (Of course, those numbers predate the release of iOS 7 and its new security features.)

Still, the rise of Apple-related robberies has been a source of concern.

“The theft of Apple phones and other hand-held devices drove the spike in robberies and larceny this year," Commissioner Raymond W. Kelly said last year, when announcing the Operation ID program.

As to whether Activation Lock will make a difference, officials must wait and watch the crime stats.

“While I hope that Activation Lock will prove to be an effective deterrent to theft, it is too early to tell [whether] it will be a comprehensive solution,” Schneiderman said in his statement.

To bolster that hope, officials can look to the precedent of car stereos. In the not-so-distant past, car-stereo theft was rampant in big cities, but more recently it has all but vanished from the scene. Why? Manufacturers began building components that became useless bricks if taken from their rightful owners. The new design served as a deterrent to theft, and law enforcement officials hope to accomplish the same result with the new iPhone campaign. They hope, too, that other companies follow. So far, San Francisco’s Stillman said, only Samsung appears to be as enthusiastic as Apple about providing a solution.

“It’s not just good consumer practice,” she said. “It’s a safety issue.”

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