One year ago, in June 2013, New York State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman and San Francisco District Attorney George Gascón launched the Secure Our Smartphones ("SOS") Initiative in response to the epidemic of smartphone theft and related violence. In 2013, thieves stole an estimated 3.1 million mobile devices in the United States, nearly double the number of devices stolen in 2012 were stolen internationally, leaving millions of victims in their wake. The theft of mobile devices, especially Apple iPhones, was so widespread, it inspired a new category of crime: "Apple Picking."
To end a technology-oriented crime wave, the SOS Initiative pushed for a life-saving technological solution: a "kill switch" application to enable authorized users to remotely deactivate their stolen devices.
London Mayor Boris Johnson soon joined the SOS Initiative as a co-chair. From there, the SOS Initiative quickly grew into a broad-based, international coalition of more than 100 elected leaders, attorneys general, consumer advocates, and top law enforcement officials from major cities. The coalition urged industry stakeholders—wireless carriers, mobile device manufacturers, software developers, and industry trade groups—to work together, to adopt a kill switch as a default, opt-out solution on all mobile devices, and to save lives.
By reducing stolen phones to useless "bricks," kill switches will diminish the secondary market for stolen phones and reduce the incentive for theft. Yet no wireless carrier or manufacturer then offered a kill switch. Worse yet, industry voices, including the CTIA, the influential trade group for U.S. wireless carriers, fiercely opposed the technology, labeling it infeasible and unwise.
In its first year, the SOS Initiative caused a major shift in the smartphone industry and new attention to developing a technological solution to the smartphone crime wave:
On September 18, 2013, Apple unveiled "Activation Lock," a proof-of-concept kill switch available (though not automatically enabled) on all iPhones running the iOS 7 operating system.
In February 2014, in cooperation with District Attorney Gascón, California State Senator Mark Leno introduced the first legislation that would require technological theft-deterrent features enabled on all smartphones sold in the state.
In February and March 2014, Senator Amy Klobuchar and Representative Jose Serrano introduced companion federal legislation to require carriers and manufacturers to make kill switch anti-theft solutions mandatory for all smartphones in the United States.
On April 5, 2014, Samsung rolled out its own kill switch, dubbed "Reactivation Lock," for certain new Verizon and U.S. Cellular "Galaxy" devices.
On April 15, 2014, the CTIA abandoned its opposition to a kill switch and announced a "Smartphone Anti-Theft Voluntary Commitment," in which AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile, U.S. Cellular, Verizon Wireless, and others pledged to implement a kill switch-type solution on an opt-in basis.
On May 15, 2014, Minnesota became the first state to mandate a kill switch on all smartphones. (Separate legislation is pending in California, Illinois, and New York.)
With the release of this report on June 19, 2014, the SOS Initiative achieved two major milestones:
Microsoft confirmed it would incorporate a kill switch-type theft-deterrence solution in the next release of its Windows Phone operating system, which will run on all Nokia smartphones; and,
Google confirmed it would incorporate a kill switch-type theft-deterrence solution in its next version of the Android operating system, the most popular mobile operating system worldwide.
Preliminary results following Apple’s adoption of Activation Lock—the first kill switch commercially available in the United States—appear to validate the kill switch as an effective tool to deter smartphone crime. The report releases new crime statistics indicating that in the first five months of 2014, shortly after Apple introduced Activation Lock, the theft of Apple devices fell by 17 percent in New York City, while thefts of Samsung products increased by 51 percent compared to the same time period in the previous year. Other cities experienced the same trend. In the six months after Apple introduced Activation Lock, iPhone thefts fell 24 percent in London and robberies fell 38 percent in San Francisco compared to the six months prior to Activation Lock. During the same period, thefts of other popular mobile devices increased.
The work of the SOS coalition continues. With the majority of phones still without an active kill switch, smartphone-related thefts and violence remain a tragic reality. Criminals have learned to target devices without available kill switches, increasing the importance of immediately implementing kill switches across manufacturers. And because kill switches are available on an opt-in basis, not enough consumers are signing up—underscoring the urgency of the SOS call to make kill switches a standard, opt-out function on all phones.
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