Mobile Security Featured Article
June 25, 2013

Smartphone Theft Prevention

By TMCnet Special Guest
Angela E. Giancarlo, Partner at Mayer Brown LLP

 I read the recent New York Times article (“Cellphone Thefts Grow, but the Industry Looks the Other Way”) reporting on the rise in thefts of smartphones. I was surprised that the New York Times and law enforcement implied that the wireless sector is to blame for the rise in thefts of smartphones. Having recently left the Federal Communications Commission as Chief of Staff to Commissioner Robert McDowell and with responsibility for public safety matters, I respectfully disagree with that view. 

Regrettably, the New York Times article did not cover the broad range of efforts undertaken by the carriers, handset manufacturers, and operating system developers to combat smartphone theft.  The truth is that the wireless community has been fully engaged. First, the wireless carriers have developed databases of devices reported lost and stolen and are working to integrate the information into a global database so that devices lost or stolen in the U.S. cannot be used on networks here or on many networks abroad. This effort will substantially reduce the value of stolen smartphones by not allowing them to work on carrier networks. Perhaps more importantly, handset manufacturers, operating system developers and carriers have worked in close cooperation to educate consumers about precautions to avoid theft, what to do if a device is stolen, and available tools that make the information on devices more secure like the use of passwords, PINs, remote wiping capabilities and more. 

Image via Shutterstock

These consumer-friendly approaches are superior to the “kill switch” proposed by some that would permanently disable the hardware of a smartphone. If a “killed” device is later found, the owner would have no alternative other than to purchase a new device, which, as the article notes, can be a costly option. The wireless industry has innovated on this front, too, and Samsung and Apple have announced consumer-friendly solutions in just the last few weeks.

Last year, I watched the Chiefs of Police of New York City, Washington, DC and Philadelphia, Senator Charles Schumer of New York, Mayor Vincent Gray of Washington, Julius Genachowski, Chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, and representatives of the wireless industry share the news of their unprecedented agreement to develop and deploy a range of solutions for this vexing problem. The wireless sector is doing its part and has met every milestone of its commitment to date and expects this comprehensive solution to be fully in place by November when carriers will be part of the global stolen device database. 

Certainly, we all agree that smartphone theft is a real problem – scary, painful and potentially costly.  And the last thing the wireless industry wants is for its customers to be the victims of crime.  The industry is moving ahead and doing its part to diminish the profit and other incentives that criminals have to steal customers’ devices. The wireless community has indeed “stepped up,” continuing its longstanding  history of assisting law enforcement protect citizens with the use of advanced technologies.  As the sector moves ahead, however, I suggest that we allow their efforts to come to full fruition before suggesting additional governmental actions. 

Ms. Giancarlo is a partner at Mayer Brown LLP.  She represents Verizon, Inc. and CTIA-The Wireless Association.

Edited by Rich Steeves

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