Does Apple’s iPhone Now Repel Thieves?

Source: Thinkstock

Source: Thinkstock

Last fall, Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL) introduced a “kill switch” theft deterrent feature known as Activation Lock in its iOS 7 mobile operating system. According to Apple, this feature prevents thieves from disabling the Find My iPhone application even if the phone data is erased. It also requires the owner’s Apple ID and passcode in order to reactivate the phone. The feature was introduced to help make the iPhone a less attractive target for thieves. According to the Federal Communications Commission, approximately 30 to 40 percent of all robberies in major U.S. cities involve the theft of a mobile phone.

While some commentators dismissed the feature as a marketing gimmick, Craig Federighi, Apple’s senior vice president of software engineering, told last year’s Worldwide Developers Conference audience that he believed Activation Lock “is going to be a really powerful theft deterrent.” Now, less than a year after Activation Lock was first made available to iPhone owners, law enforcement officials are already reporting a noticeable drop in iPhone theft rates, while thefts of devices that don’t include similar kill switch technology have increased.

Police officials in London, New York City, and San Francisco have all reported a decline in iPhone robberies since the introduction of Activation Lock, noted New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman via a press release. According to Schneiderman, robberies and grand larcenies involving Apple products dropped by 19 percent and 29 percent, respectively, during the first five months of 2014, compared to the same time period last year.  As noted by the attorney general, this was more than a statistical anomaly, since the decline in Apple-related robberies and grand larcenies significantly exceeded the overall decline of those crimes. Meanwhile, thefts involving Samsung’s (SSNLF.PK) smartphones jumped by over 40 percent during the same time period in New York.

Similarly, London saw its iPhone theft rate decline by 24 percent in the six months since Activation Lock was introduced, compared to the six months before its introduction. A comparison of the same time periods in San Francisco showed that its iPhone theft rate dropped by 38 percent. Like New York, both London and San Francisco also saw increases in the number of robberies involving Samsung’s devices after Apple’s Activation Lock was introduced.

“We can make the violent epidemic of smartphone theft a thing of the past, and these numbers prove that,” said San Francisco District Attorney George Gascón. “It was evident from day one that a technological solution was not only possible, but that it would serve as an effective deterrent to this growing threat.  This past year we successfully held the wireless industry’s feet to the fire and it’s already having an impact for consumers. In the year ahead we will work to ensure this technology is deployed industry-wide, and in the most effective manner possible.”

Both Schneiderman and Gascón helped spearhead the creation of the Secure Our Smartphones (S.O.S) coalition. The international, government-led coalition seeks to encourage smartphone manufacturers and telecommunications companies to implement solutions to the increasingly widespread problem of smartphone theft.

The success of Apple’s Activation Lock has led other tech companies to add similar kill switch software to their smartphone operating systems. According to Schneiderman, both Google (NASDAQ:GOOG) (NASDAQ:GOOGL) and Microsoft (NASDAQ:MSFT) will incorporate their own versions of Activation Lock in the next iterations of the Android and Windows Phone operating systems. Samsung started offering a kill switch solution through Verizon (NYSE:VZ) Wireless in April 2014. Meanwhile, some states aren’t waiting for smartphone companies to volunteer a solution. Legislation introduced in California may soon require all mobile devices sold in the state to have a kill switch function that can disable stolen devices, according to a press release from Senator Mark Leno.

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