Get SF Weekly Newsletters
Pin It

The Life of a Stolen Phone: For the Smartphone Industry, Theft Is a Part of the Business Model 

Wednesday, Apr 23 2014
Comments (2)

Page 2 of 5

And technology hasn't just altered human behavior; it's also changed the nature of crime. It's created a world in which we handle commerce electronically, obviating the need to keep wads of cash in our pockets. Because people use cellphones to tell time, they no longer wear watches. Wallets, which now only serve to hold credit cards and IDs, have become essentially worthless to anyone except the owner; the average person's most valuable effect is his smartphone.

So, the same items that tempt thieves also make us oblivious to them watching us. And it exposes us to other forms of crime, as well: In October, smartphone-absorbed Muni commuters failed to notice a gunman until after he'd shot 20-year-old Justin Valdez. The incident drew media scorn — and a whole litany of think-pieces bemoaning the shallowness of society. If there was a lesson to be learned, though, it was that anyone on that train could have been easy prey.

"You walk down Market Street, and so many people are just checked out, on the phone," Capt. Cherniss says. For a thief looking to make a quick hit, it's the perfect storm of inattention and enticement.

Thus, smartphone theft has ballooned in tech-drenched San Francisco, where, according to District Attorney George Gascón, it now accounts for at least 50 percent of all robberies (and 75 percent of robberies in Oakland). It's become so prevalent as to garner its own nickname among cops — "Apple picking" — because handheld devices are low-hanging fruit.

And it's left police officers powerless to help.

"[Once] you take six reports on this, it becomes routine," one cop says. Yet, he acknowledges, filing reports is usually an officer's only recourse. Phone thefts are hard to investigate because they happen so quickly, and because they kill the victim's line of communication — to police, or anyone else. And most departments lack the resources to solve these crimes. SFPD has all but eviscerated its plain-clothed forces and its narcotics division over the last four years, leaving a backlog of unresolved cases. It's only fitting that criminals would get the perception SFPD had let its guard down — much like the oblivious gadget-users on Market Street.

Add to that a 2011 state law that increased the threshold for grand theft from $400 to $950 — which meant that smartphone robberies could be reclassified as misdemeanors. That allowed SFPD to tout its massive reduction in felony arrests, which plummeted from 20,954 in 2002 to 8,911 nine years later when the law was passed — even while Apple-picking was on the rise.

Ironically, state Sen. Mark Leno, who is currently pushing a bill to force smartphone companies to install better theft-prevention technology, also voted for the 2011 threshold law. The impetus was to unclog California's prison system and adjust for inflation, Leno says, adding that "smartphone theft was not in our consciousness at the time."

Thus, the scourge continued, the thieves went mostly unpunished, and lawmakers continued to shunt the burden. Until they couldn't.

In the fall of 2012, Gascón was rattled.

Felony arrests were down, petty crime was up. Smartphones were being snatched out of hands or plucked from pockets in downtown San Francisco, and city officials had yet to find a solution. Gascón had turned the issue into a cause célèbre, reciting crime statistics, hatching plans with other lawmakers, and entreating the telecom companies for help.

But no one in the industry was listening.

Gascón began his crusade after latching onto a simple but promising idea: kill-switches. The easiest way to stamp out street robberies was to take away the payoff, the DA thought. And companies could do that by installing preventative technology — the so-called "kill-switch" — to disable a stolen device, and keep it from being reactivated. That way, a thief would have no incentive to rip it off in the first place.

It seemed like a worthy cause, and only a niggling hardship for smartphone titans like Apple and Samsung. And they already had the capability, Gascón and his colleagues thought. Britain had been flagging stolen phones on a national database for years; U.S. companies, with their superior engineering and surfeit of resources, could certainly do much better.

Apple confirmed as much in 2010, when it unveiled a feature called "Alert & Respond," which uses real-time geo-tracking to locate stolen devices. The iPhone used to showcase the product was allegedly stolen, in SOMA, by a hapless robber named Horatio Toure. He was apprehended within 10 minutes. The story of "the world's unluckiest thief" stealing "the world's most trackable iPhone" quickly became international news.

Clearly, industry leaders had solutions in hand. So Gascón was surprised when they put up resistance.

He began making overtures in late 2012 by calling a meeting with representatives of all the major service carriers — AT&T, Verizon, Sprint, and their industry trade group, the Cellular Telecommunications Industry Association (CTIA) — and asking them to advocate for kill-switches. They quickly shut him down, claiming the technology didn't exist. And if it did exist, they said, the onus would be on manufacturers, not carriers, to provide it.

Undaunted, Gascón turned to Apple, only to be brushed off by Michael Foulkes, the company's government liaison. When the two met in April of last year, Foulkes said that the next two generations of iPhone had already been developed, sans kill-switches, under Steve Jobs. Feeling jilted, Gascón chastened Apple for neglecting its social responsibility. He grumbled to a San Francisco Examiner reporter who documented the DA's complaints — and accidentally leaked the news about the next two iPhones models. Bloggers rejoiced. The resulting news story turned into a massive product announcement.

"Obviously, that was not a satisfying response," Gascón says, recalling how he subsequently wrote a second letter to Apple CEO Tim Cook and got a slightly more encouraging response from another attorney, who said the company was willing to work with law enforcement — but offered no immediate commitment. Then, in September 2013, Apple rolled out an anti-theft feature that somewhat resembled the one Gascón had proposed, except that it was optional rather than baked-in. Not to be outdone, Samsung approached the DA's office and promised to install similar protections in its Galaxy S5 phone, which would come out later that year.

About The Author

Rachel Swan

Rachel Swan

Rachel Swan was a staff writer at SF Weekly from 2013 to 2015. In previous lives she was a music editor, IP hack, and tutor of Cal athletes.

Comments (2)

Showing 1-2 of 2

Add a comment

Subscribe to this thread:
Showing 1-2 of 2

Add a comment

Popular Stories

  1. Most Popular Stories
  2. Stories You Missed


  • clipping at Brava Theater Sept. 11
    Sub Pop recording artists 'clipping.' brought their brand of noise-driven experimental hip hop to the closing night of 2016's San Francisco Electronic Music Fest this past Sunday. The packed Brava Theater hosted an initially seated crowd that ended the night jumping and dancing against the front of the stage. The trio performed a set focused on their recently released Sci-Fi Horror concept album, 'Splendor & Misery', then delved into their dancier and more aggressive back catalogue, and recent single 'Wriggle'. Opening performances included local experimental electronic duo 'Tujurikkuja' and computer music artist 'Madalyn Merkey.'"