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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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.

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