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NYT: Phone vendors profiting off turning blind eye to thefts

updated 05:04 pm EDT, Thu May 2, 2013

Cellphones accounting for large percentages of thefts in major US cities

The cellphone industry -- including both carriers and phone makers -- is turning a blind eye toward the problem of smartphone theft, to its own benefit, a New York Times piece claims. The paper, for instance, quotes District of Columbia Police Chief Cathy Lanier as saying that "the carriers are not innocent in this whole game. They are making profit off [smartphone theft]." In 2012, the DC area witnessed a record 1,829 phones being stolen.

The Times notes that while there is a US database for stolen phones, in which IMEI numbers are tracked to prevent them from being reactivated, police say it isn't doing anything to deter theft, since many phones are shipped overseas -- and IMEI numbers are easily modified anyway. People like San Francisco District Attorney George Gascón have argued that it should be relatively easy for phone makers to implement "killswitch" technology that disables a phone after it's reported stolen.

Gascón spoke with Apple and various carriers about the matter in March, but says he came away without any hope or promises. "Unlike other types of crimes, this is a crime that could be easily fixed with a technological solution," he suggests.

Phone theft has become a serious issue in some US cities. Last year, almost half of San Francisco robberies involved phones, up from 36 percent in 2011. Smartphones factored into 42 percent of Washington robberies, and in New York City, iPhone and iPad thefts alone accounted for 14 percent of all crimes.

Carriers continue to back the national stolen phone database, which they created along with help from police departments, but also say they're working on separate answers to the robbery issue. Verizon maintains its own stolen phone database, although its effectiveness isn't known.

New York Representative Eliot Engel has proposed legal measures, such as making it illegal to modify a phone's IMEI number, a strategy already adoped in the UK. That solution, however, also runs the risk of resistance from groups like the Electronic Frontier Foundation, which say the right to change an IMEI number ensures privacy.

By Electronista Staff
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