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Officials call on cellphone makers to help thwart theft

June 05, 2013|By Maria L. La Ganga
  • Brian Bocchino uses his iPhone at Union Square in San Francisco on Wednesday. San Francisco's district attorney and New York's attorney general say they will meet with major cellphone manufacturers to push the industry to do more to protect consumers from violent crimes connected to cellphone thefts.
Brian Bocchino uses his iPhone at Union Square in San Francisco on Wednesday.… (Jeff Chiu / Associated Press…)

SAN FRANCISCO — Faced with a steep rise in smartphone theft, the San Francisco district attorney and New York’s attorney general said Wednesday that they will convene a summit next week with the top four phone makers to push for a technological fix to what they call a crime epidemic.

“Last year, 50% of all robberies in San Francisco involved a mobile communications device,” San Francisco Dist. Atty. George Gascon said in an interview. “In Los Angeles it was 30%; 1.6 million Americans last year were victims of smartphone theft, and we’ve started to see some violence.”

Gascon said representatives from Apple Inc., Google Inc., Samsung Electronics Co. Ltd. and Microsoft Corp. have agreed to attend the June 13 meeting in New York City office of state Atty. Gen. Eric Schneiderman.

The two men plan to push the companies to create so-called kill switches for new phone models, which would allow owners to render gadgets inoperable if they are stolen. Currently, thieves wipe the memories of stolen phones and resell them for hundreds of dollars.

“The theft of handheld devices is the fastest-growing street crime, and increasingly, incidents are turning violent,” Schneiderman said in a written statement. “It’s time for manufacturers to be as innovative in solving this problem as they have been in designing devices that have reshaped how we live.”

In February, a fight over an iPhone on a Queens, N.Y., subway platform resulted in three victims being stabbed. And in May, a 27-year-old tourist was knifed in the face and throat in San Francisco by two men who stole his iPhone.

Gascon said he began trying to meet with carriers and manufacturers in December to ask for a technological fix.

His Apple interactions have been “unsatisfying,” Gascon said, adding that “the ball keeps getting put farther and farther down the line.” Google and Microsoft, he said, never responded to his early inquiries.

A Google representative said Wednesday that the company will attend the New York meeting. Apple and Microsoft did not respond to emailed requests for comment Wednesday.

But Gascon said he met this week with Samsung officials, who promised that the company will offer a kill switch feature in an upcoming generation of the Galaxy S4.

“The only area where I am still not completely satisfied,” Gascon said, “is that the consumer will have to pay for the service through a third party vendor. I hope in the near future that the solution will be universal in every phone and free to the consumer.”

Adam Yates, director of corporate communications for Samsung North America, would not divulge any product details. He wrote in an email Wednesday that “at this time all we can do is confirm that Samsung will participate in the scheduled meeting.”

CTIA, the trade group for the wireless communications industry, said on its website that the sector has created “an integrated database that is designed to prevent stolen phones from being reactivated. As more countries and more carriers around the world participate in the database, criminals will have fewer and fewer outlets for their stolen devices.”

But in a May 23 letter to the Major Cities Chiefs Assn., Gascon asked the group of law enforcement officials to endorse the idea of kill-switch technology. He said manufacturers and carriers “continue to look the other way” as the problem worsens and called the CTIA database no solution.

“Unfortunately, the database only covers mobile communications devices on a handful of carriers,” Gascon wrote to the law enforcement chiefs. “By far the clearest indication that the CTIA database has failed, however, is the fact that cell phone theft has continued to rise since its implementation last year.”

In a Monday letter to Federal Communications Commission Chairman Julius Genachowski, the president of the Major Cities Chiefs Assn. said the database was a first step, but that technology must be developed to render smartphones useless so that they cannot be resold if they are stolen.

“Many smartphones that are being ‘disabled’ still have the capability to connect to WiFi networks and may be operable with carriers not in the database,” wrote Philadelphia Police Commissioner Charles H. Ramsey, MCCA president. “If technology is to be successful in thwarting cellphone theft, technology needs to be developed to completely shut connectivity down."

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maria.laganga@latimes.com

Twitter: @marialaganga

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