Apple recently released two new iPhone models, the 5c and 5s, along with the newest version of their mobile operating system, iOS7. As with most new Apple releases there are a number of glitzy features that have received a great deal of press, but one that is often overlooked by the technology press, and is of particular importance for Oakland residents, is the new version of Find My Phone with Activation Lock, which offers new functionality that could help reduce the number of robberies in Oakland.
It is no secret that robberies have spiked in Oakland over the last few years. It’s not just Oakland; robberies are up in cities across the country. What many may not realize is that the market for stolen iPhones is driving a lot of this crime. In New York City, more than 40 percent of all robberies involve mobile phones. In San Francisco, almost 50 percent of all robberies involve mobile phones.
Why is this happening? Stolen iPhones can be sold for $200-$500 each. Stealing iPhones may have initially been dismissed as random street crime committed by young criminals looking for smartphones for their own use and to sell locally, but it is bigger than that. On a recent trip to China, I was stunned to see how prevalent black-market iPhones were in a market under one of Shanghai’s subway stations. One of the locals I spoke to admitted that many of these devices came through illegal channels.The market for stolen Apple mobile devices is a multi-billion dollar global criminal ecosystem. Stolen devices often end up in China and Latin America. The insatiable demand for these devices in foreign markets combined with constrained legitimate channels of distribution has resulted in many criminals switching from dealing drugs to robbery as their preferred means of making money.
Law enforcement has begun to recognize this is a tsunami-sized crime wave and has been looking for ways to turn the tide. New York’s District Attorney, Eric Schneiderman, and San Francisco’s DA, George Gascon, have taken the lead in organizing public officials and members of law enforcement to encourage Apple to include technology that will reduce mobile device crime.
Apple has included the Find My iPhone app as a part of iOS for a while. It helps an owner locate his or her phone if it is lost or stolen. Unfortunately, it has been ineffective is reducing crime because it can be easily circumvented. Once a criminal steals your iPhone, they can easily reset the phone, which means you can’t track it and it is easy to sell. There are numerous third-party apps available with similar functionality, but they all have the same flaw. These apps might work if someone accidentally walks off with your phone, but criminals who do this on a regular basis are going to be able to wipe your phone within minutes.
New functionality provided by iOS 7 has the potential to put a serious dent in the problem. Its called “Activation Lock” which enhances the existing “Find My Phone” app that is pre-installed on all Apple mobile devices.
Activation Lock ties your Apple ID and password to your device. Since the iPhone was introduced in 2007, owners have had to “activate” the phone before they could use it. This process involves the phone contacting Apple’s servers over the Internet for authorization before it can be used. Apple has leveraged a similar process with “Activation Lock.”
A criminal won’t be able to reset an Apple device running iOS7 that has the new and improved Find My Phone app enabled without providing the owner’s Apple ID and password. If the crook tries to turn off the Find My Phone functionality, they will be again prompted for the Apple ID and password. If they manage to erase iOS 7 and re-install it, they will still be prompted for the Apple ID and password of the owner.
This is because Apple has a way to uniquely identify each phone at the hardware level. Even if the crook attempts to downgrade from iOS7 to iOS6, they will be prompted to enter the owner’s Apple ID and password. If the criminal attempts to restore a different user’s iOS image onto a stolen phone, Apple will once again uniquely recognize the hardware, as a device that was enabled with Find My Phone and it will ask for the owner’s Apple ID and password before it will proceed. You can see how this is going to be frustrating for someone who shouldn’t have your phone.
So, why is this a big deal? This doesn’t stop someone from robbing you for your phone. What it does is make a stolen iPhone with Find My Phone and Activation Lock nearly worthless. This has the potential to decimate the market for stolen iPhones, and if there is no demand, then there will be no reason for criminals to mug people for their iPhone. The NYPD seems to have bought into the new technology and been seen passing out flyers to pedestrians encouraging them to upgrade to iOS7.
Apple seems to have thought through many of the details that might trip up consumers, e.g., lost password retrieval, de-activate Action Lock to all for legitimate resale of device.
The biggest problem with Find My Phone with Activation Lock may be the fact that it isn’t turned on by default. Owners must know about the feature, understand it, and then choose to enable it. Oaklanders are used to organizing and supporting their community because we can’t always count on city government. So we each have an opportunity to put a dent in the number of robberies in Oakland by upgrading, for free, to iOS7.
Alexander Castro (@alex_castro__) is a technology executive and entrepreneur. All opinions are his own and not those of his employer.
Editor’s Note: This piece reflects an individual opinion and is not a reported story from Oakland Local. Oakland Local invites community residents to share their views about events and issues in Oakland. See our guidelines.