What's Driving Oakland's Robbery Epidemic? 

Answer: Smartphones. And law enforcement experts say cellphone companies could make our streets a lot safer if they would install kill switches that make their phones inoperable when stolen.

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On a Wednesday evening, just a few weeks before the November 2012 election, Oakland City Council candidate Dan Kalb was robbed while on his way home from a local neighborhood meeting. Kalb's campaign platform had centered in part on reducing crime in his North Oakland district, and as he drove home from the Golden Gate Neighborhood Crime Prevention Council meeting, he slipped a white iPhone earbud into his ear to receive a call from a voter. Minutes later, at 8:35 p.m., Kalb got out of his vehicle a half-block from his Temescal house, and, still distracted by the phone call, opened the trunk of his car to retrieve some campaign pamphlets. Someone poked him in the ribs from behind.

"I thought it was a neighbor saying, 'hi,'" Kalb recalled. "But it was a guy with a gun. I dropped everything, including the phone. It all happened in less than a minute."

Kalb tried to bargain with the thief, offering him the money from his wallet, but the man was focused on Kalb's iPhone 4S. After spotting the phone amid the scattered papers that Kalb had dropped on the pavement, the thief snatched it and jumped into a car and fled. He was gone long before the police arrived ten minutes later.

The armed robbery inspired a flurry of media reports. News crews and reporters came to Kalb's house. "Kind of ironic, isn't it?" he told them. "It can happen to anybody."

In fact, it's been happening to a lot of people, not only in Kalb's North Oakland district, but throughout the city. Over the past few years, Oakland has become known as the robbery capital of America. And this year, the number of robberies has leapt higher still — even as all other major violent crime categories have dropped in Oakland. As of last week, robberies were up 24 percent in the city compared to the same period in 2012, and armed robberies have soared by 45 percent.

The robbery surge has not only deepened Oakland's reputation for being a crime-ridden city, but it also has put longtime residents on edge. A recent poll commissioned by the Oakland Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce found that 55 percent of respondents said they now feel "less safe." In fact, several neighborhoods throughout the city have decided in recent weeks to hire private security companies to patrol their areas in an effort to stop the robbery epidemic from spreading.

"Every robbery requires an element of force or fear — there's an overwhelming sense of vulnerability that comes with the crime," noted Oakland police Lieutenant Chris Bolton, who works in the department's geographic Area 2, which includes the city's Temescal district. "People are feeling victimized in their own neighborhoods. These types of crimes are toxic to the feeling of safety."

According to law enforcement experts, the driving force behind the robbery outbreak nationwide is the expanding global market for stolen electronics — including cellphones, tablets, and laptops. Oakland police officials say that some criminal street gangs have gone so far as to abandon the illegal drug trade in favor of the more lucrative stolen electronics market.

According to OPD estimates, 75 percent of street robberies in Oakland now involve a cellphone. In San Francisco, nearly 50 percent of all robberies include a smartphone. And in New York City, smartphone thefts now account for more than 40 percent of all robberies (a 40 percent increase from 2011), inspiring the police force to coin the term "apple picking" to refer to iPhone theft. Consumer Reports estimated that 1.6 million Americans were victims of cellphone robbery last year.

In Oakland, city officials, including Kalb — who won election last November — have come under increasing criticism for not doing more to address crime. But many law enforcement experts say the most effective way to combat the robbery epidemic is by eliminating the incentive for thieves to steal smartphones in the first place.

San Francisco District Attorney George Gascón and New York state Attorney General Eric Schneiderman have been arguing for more than a year that the number of robberies nationwide will plummet if smartphone manufacturers install so-called "kill switches" in their devices. These hardware fixes would render smartphones inoperable when stolen — and thus worthless. "I cannot over-emphasize that thousands of people are being affected by this," Gascón said of smartphone robberies. "There are homicides related to this."

Until recently, smartphone makers like Apple, Samsung, Google, and Microsoft resisted installing kill switches in their products. The companies declined to say why — but critics have noted that the stolen smartphone industry has been a financial windfall for these corporations. When a smartphone is stolen, the victim usually then buys a new device at a cost of $500 or more. Lookout, a smartphone security company, estimated that lost and stolen cellphones cost consumers $30 billion last year. The smartphone industry in its entirety is worth $69 billion, according to the International Data Corporation, a technology-focused research firm.

Over the past year, Gascón and Schneiderman have led a national campaign to raise awareness about the need for kill switches. They contend that the most effective solution would be a hardware switch that would be impossible to hack. "The reality behind a software application is that as soon as someone can hack through it, it's useless," Gascón said. "A hardware solution is part of the phone and cannot be easily hacked through, and although hardware isn't 100 percent hack-proof, it's much better and more secure. Even if you wipe the phone clean, it's secure."

But instead of installing hardware kill switches, Apple and Samsung recently introduced software upgrades and applications that include kill-switch-type features. However, the companies have not actively marketed these upgrades, and so many consumers appear to be unaware of them. Some law enforcement experts are also skeptical about whether they will work — or whether hackers will be able to eventually overcome them.

And if that were to happen, then the robbery epidemic in Oakland and other cities likely will only get worse.


It costs just a buck to enter the Laney Flea Market, and with that dollar you enter a different world. Maní in shell, freshly sliced mango, agua fresca, boiled garbanzos, and hot tostadas from the plancha fill the air with a mixture of scents typically found farther south. Besides delicious and affordable food, you can find pretty much everything else at the market. Need a drill bit, or a vacuum, maybe a jacket or some hair gel? Not a problem — the vendors will hook you up. If you've got $500 cash burning a hole in your pocket, you can get a "clean" iPhone 5, too.

On a recent Sunday, four vendors were selling used smartphones of various models. One stand had an "unlocked" iPhone 5 for $580. The salesman assured me that it was ready to activate with any carrier — just pop in a new SIM card. It's possible that phones likes this one had been sold legitimately by their original owners and were now being resold legally at the flea market. But they also might have been stolen.

Last November, San Francisco police raided a storage facility in the city's Tenderloin district and found $500,000 in stolen electronics, including smartphones, tablets, and laptops. The suspects told San Francisco police that they regularly sold the stolen goods overseas and sent the rest to Oakland flea markets.

Lieutenant Ed Santos, head of the SFPD Central Station investigation team, said the department has conducted five or six similar "fencing operation" raids since last fall, and uncovered a cache of stolen electronics every time. He explained that the term "fencing" refers to the middlemen of the electronics black market — organized groups that purchase stolen electronics in bulk from street robbers, and then resell them. Fencing groups are essentially the "wholesalers" of the stolen smartphone trade, and Santos believes they are just one layer in a multi-tiered industry.

"You have the young who are stealing," said Santos. "While the people who are running these [fencing] operations are usually in their mid-thirties and up, we also believe there is a much greater, international organization that is buying these products from the middlemen. These things are being sold quickly, and everything that doesn't move is sold at Oakland flea markets."

An iPhone 5 can fetch more than $500 at a local flea market. But overseas, the price tag jumps even higher. "The business model of carriers is different in other countries," Gascón explained. "Here, they give you the phone with the contract [for $199], while in other places you pay the actual value for the phone, which can be around $700."

The sheer scale of the international smartphone black market helps explain why previous attempts to thwart robberies — like a national stolen cellphone database — failed to make an impact. If a smartphone is shipped to China, foreign carriers are not going to vet its legitimacy against a US database. As a result, the only effective deterrent, American law enforcement officials say, is to make the smartphone itself inoperable when stolen.

The profitability of cellphone theft, from the least organized street robbers to the criminal elite, also highlights why local police forces have been struggling to deal with the robbery epidemic. "Cellphones are easily sold on secondhand markets and are the driving force behind our surge in robberies," said Lieutenant Bolton of the OPD. "With the staff we have, we've had to focus on problem-solving .... We've made attempts through education efforts to prevent theft and recover phones, but ultimately, the solution will be in these types of technological advances."

On June 13, Gascón and Schneiderman held a press conference in New York City to unveil their "Secure our Smartphones" Initiative. A coalition that includes dozens of district attorneys, attorneys general, police chiefs, public safety activists, and researchers from across the country had signed a petition demanding that cellphone companies find a technological solution to the growing problem of street robberies.

Later that day, Gascón and Schneiderman held a "Smart Phone Summit," which was attended by the largest smartphone makers — including Samsung, Apple, Microsoft, and Google — and was organized to discuss the necessity of kill switches. Gascón told me at the time that he was hopeful the meeting would be fruitful, and that momentum was shifting, but he added that it had been a struggle to find a sympathetic ear in the industry. He said he had been "stonewalled" during his initial appeals to the cellphone carriers, like Verizon and AT&T, and in January, Apple representatives had told him that a technological solution was "not forthcoming."

"The industry has to admit that there is a technological solution rather than a software solution," Gascón said in a June interview. "A hardware solution will be much harder to hack and will render the phone inoperable."


In September, Apple released its new iPhone 5S and iPhone 5C to much fanfare. The iPhone 5S is sleeker, faster, and comes in a new color: gold. Its updated iSight camera can take an 8 megapixel panoramic picture, and its fingerprint scanning technology promises to increase security. At the same time, Apple released its new iOS 7 operating system, downloadable free and compatible with iPhone 4 and above and second-generation iPads and above.

Included along with the neon colors and bold graphics of iOS 7 is a much less publicized new feature called Activation Lock — Apple's version of a kill switch.

Activation Lock is packaged with and activated through the Find My iPhone app, and is synched with Apple's iCloud — essentially Apple's online storage center. When someone activates and registers his or her new iPhone, the unique identification number of the phone's hardware is synched with the user's Apple ID, and automatically sent and stored in the Apple server. If the user turns on the Find My iPhone app (and they must turn it on, it's not a default setting), Activation Lock will request the original Apple ID and password before allowing someone to wipe data from the phone, turn off Find My iPhone, or reset the device and reactivate it with a new phone plan.

Simply shutting off the phone won't deactivate Activation Lock — although it will impede the Find My iPhone tracking feature. The owner of a lost or stolen phone can also wipe his or her data remotely and report the phone lost or stolen through his or her iCloud account. A password screen will pop up on the home page of the phone, informing whoever has the device that it is, in fact, stolen.

Because the identification is stored on Apple's servers, the company contends that there is no way to bypass Activation Lock.

Max Szabo, the manager of Legislative Affairs and Policy at the San Francisco DA's office, participated in a test of Activation Lock and other similar technology at the Northern California Regional Intelligence Center this summer. He declined to provide specific results of the tests, but said that there's speculation that hackers will punch holes in the new system.

"If the [hackers'] exploits do not prove to be successful or Apple is able to patch [the holes] in subsequent updates, we expect there to be a drop in the number of iPhone-related robberies as thieves learn that iOS 7-enabled phones have no value on the secondary market," Szabo said.

Apple officials declined to comment about Activation Lock for this story.

The second largest smartphone company, Samsung, outsourced its kill-switch solution to Absolute Software, an electronics relocation company founded in 1993. The software is called LoJack, and it is compatible with Samsung's Galaxy S4, Galaxy S4 Active, and Galaxy Tab 3 10.1 mobile devices. Absolute Software also has a team of former police and law enforcement officials on staff to help track down stolen devices.

LoJack, however, may ultimately fail as a universal kill switch because of its limited reach and high cost. Consumers must find LoJack in the Google Play app store and pay $30 a year for the service. Because the security feature is offered only to customers who opt-in and are willing to spend $2.50 a month, officials fear that too few Galaxy S4 users will install the application onto their phones to have any marked effect on smartphone crime.

The new upgrades from Apple and Samsung also do not meet all of Gascón and Schneiderman's original demands: that the feature should be free and standard, universal enough to deter theft, and difficult to hack through. As for Google and Microsoft, they have yet to introduce any type of kill switch.

Moreover, the most important shortcoming of the new kill-switch-type devices — besides the fact that neither are a default option and must be turned on by the user — is the lack of promotion of them. Smartphone owners and law enforcement officials need to know that the new features exist for them to be effective.


Apple's iOS 7 online tutorial is a beautifully made seven-minute video. It gracefully introduces users to innovative new typography, icons, grid systems, color palettes, and features, like screen layers, automatic photo grouping, AirDrop, and a Control Center. It talks a lot about design and the new iTunes Radio. But there is no mention — at all — of Activation Lock, the most important new feature for user security.

On the Apple website, you have to scroll to the very bottom of the iOS 7 information page, past all the other exciting new features, to read about how to protect yourself and your phone. It's the last thing mentioned (except a "coming soon" iCloud Keychain that does not yet exist).

The decision by Apple to downplay the Activation Lock likely also promises to have a substantial impact on consumer awareness. Josh Swartz, a data scientist at Chartbeat, measured traffic on websites and found that most people, about 60 percent, only scroll halfway down a page. Many people never bother scrolling at all. Good webpage designers know that you always put the most important information at the top.

And while Apple and Samsung also have highly effective marketing departments, they've done very little to promote their new security features to law enforcement officials or the public at large. Apple has been so quiet, in fact, that the people who should know the most about Activation Lock have never heard of it.

Oakland police Lieutenant Bolton regularly responds to reports of smartphone robberies. He said OPD is trying its best to identify "hotspots" and send more patrols into the areas with high rates of theft to try to prevent crime before it occurs, instead of just responding "call to call to call."

Although victims know about the robbery surge in Oakland, he said, many people never expect to get robbed and don't take the necessary precautions. "Although they're aware of crime beforehand," he said. "They don't believe it will happen to them."

Yet despite his daily work in crime prevention and his experience on the streets of Oakland, nearly a month after the launch of iOS 7, Bolton said that he had never heard of Activation Lock — a program that would help him advise a victim on how to recover his or her phone, or at least assure the person that the phone could be made inoperable, at least for now.

Councilman Kalb hadn't heard of the kill switch either, even though reducing smartphone theft is an important and personal issue for him. In fact, he had just responded to a highly publicized robbery in his district a couple weeks before we spoke.

On September 23, six days after the launch of iOS 7, three hooded gunmen held up about twenty morning commuters standing in a Rockridge district casual carpool line, and robbed them of their wallets and electronic devices. The robberies occurred before 9 a.m., in broad daylight, and with multiple witnesses.

"I was surprised [by the hold-up] because I had never heard about that kind of thing before," Kalb said. "Generally the muggers don't want to be seen. They're walking around neighborhoods and looking for a person, usually someone by themselves. To have three guys during rush hour with so many people around, it shows how brazen robbers are becoming."

And if Kalb and Bolton hadn't heard of Activation Lock, how many of those commuters had?

"When you look at it from the bigger pic[ture]," said Lieutenant Santos, "prior to iOS 7, and even after it was released, Apple doesn't say, 'Hey, look at our security features!" Your iPhone usually contains your whole life: phone contacts, pictures, where you live .... I mean a lot. And they don't tell you how to protect yourself because they are in competition with other companies."

In other words, smartphone companies don't seem to be in a hurry to associate their products with crime — even if it might help their customers avoid becoming victims. "I'm a big supporter and friend of Apple," he added. "But I don't think they do enough to protect their consumers."


Despite the robbery epidemic, there's been no public outcry over the failure by smartphone companies to install effective kill switches — or to adequately market the upgrades they recently introduced. Instead, local law enforcement and public officials are still coming under fire for not doing more to deal with the robbery outbreak.

But Gascón said he's hopeful that an increasing number of law enforcement officials around the nation now realize that kill switches present the best hope for reducing robberies, and that they will help raise public awareness about the need for them. "I really wanted to bring national attention to this," Gascón said. "Lots of DAs and police chiefs are signing up and supporting the idea of a kill switch."

As for Kalb, he thinks it's time for lawmakers to step in and help solve the problem. "I'm all for requiring a kill switch. I'm not interested in waiting around for [smartphone companies] to do it all on their own," he said. "I'm all for introducing a bill in the [California] legislature requiring all phones in the state to have this feature." 

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