The video was chilling. Washington, D.C.’s NBC television affiliate, WRC, had been given access to a surveillance video of a crime that we hear about all too often.
In the video, a woman is walking along a busy street in downtown Washington talking on her cell phone. Following her is a young man watching her intently. Then in a flash, the man rushes up, grabs the phone from the woman’s hands while she’s talking, and dashes across a city street, phone in hand.
It should be noted that the woman wasn’t walking in a sketchy part of town. Her path took her next to the Verizon Center, a huge indoor arena where the National Hockey League’s Washington Capitals play world-class hockey and where the National Basketball Association’s Washington Wizards attempt to play something they claim to be basketball. It’s recognized as a nice part of town. But on a crowded sidewalk in full daylight, a thief grabs a smartphone and runs.
Fortunately, the crime was a snatch and grab and not a holdup, or the woman might have been injured or killed. Injuries and sometimes killings in the course of iPhone thefts are all too common in big cities, including Washington, New York and San Francisco. The crime, according to a source in San Francisco, is called “Apple picking.” The target is usually an Apple iPhone because it’s easy to turn the iPhone into cash.
For years now chiefs of police in these cities have been demanding that Apple include some means of locking iPhones to make them useless in case of theft. Now, finally, Apple has followed the lead of other phone companies and other OS makers, and is including a “kill switch” in iOS 7. But there’s a catch for the kill switch to work: You must upgrade to iOS 7, and you can’t do that until the end of 2013.
The kill feature, which Apple calls “Activation Lock,” will be part of the Find My iPhone app and apparently will be included as part of the iOS 7 upgrade when it happens. Users will still have to turn on this feature, just as they have to enable it now. But once it is enabled, you’ll be able to launch Find My iPhone from another device or from a Website. You’ll be able to send the phone a message to display, and you’ll be able to track the location of the phone using the built-in GPS.
The Find My iPhone app exists now, and it can be used to locate a wayward iPhone. This feature works. I’ve used it to locate a lost iPad and New York Times columnist David Pogue used it to recover a stolen iPhone that had somehow made its way from New York to Washington.
New iOS 7 Lockout Feature That May Save Lives Won’t Arrive Until Fall
Right now, the Find My iPhone app will only display an info screen and have it display a message and send out an annoying sound. It doesn’t stop the iPhone from being used.
But now that’s about to change. When Apple ships iOS 7, you also be able to tell the Find My iPhone app to lock the phone and erase the contents. The lock will require entry of the same Apple ID that was used to lock the phone, and will not allow activation of that phone again until it’s entered.
The Activation Lock is being ballyhooed in Apple circles as a means of preventing iPhone theft. It doesn’t do that, but it does make the phone useless if it is stolen and if the owner locks it using the Find My iPhone feature. Pogue used the feature when his iPhone was stolen, as did the woman mentioned above. But in both cases, the thief had turned off the phone immediately, rendering the iPhone finder useless. With the new Activation Lock, the iPhone can still be wiped and locked as soon as it’s turned on again, as it must be if someone is going to use it.
While it won’t happen immediately, the fact iPhones owners will soon get the ability to wipe and lock stolen devices so they can’t readily be reused will eventually dawn on the iPhone thieves. Once they figure out that it’s probably a waste of time to steal an iPhone, such thefts will start to drop off.
But it won’t happen immediately. Snatch and grab phone thieves will have to be burned by locked iPhones a few times so that the market dries up. Once the lack of a market becomes apparent to the thieves, they’ll figure out that they’re taking a risk without much possibility of reward. Or they will try to quickly sell the stolen devices to unsuspecting buyers who will throw away their money on what is no more useful than a paperweight.
Despite the fact that these folks generally aren’t the sharpest knives in the drawer, they’ll figure that out too. But while they’re figuring it out, iPhone users will still be at risk. Apple, for its part, could help by advertising widely the existence of Activation Lock, which would likely discourage thefts more quickly.
And yes, most other phones already have a feature analogous to Activation Lock, and there are apps you can buy for the iPhone now that do this. But without Apple’s participation nobody knows if an iPhone might be locked or not. Now they will know, and with that knowledge, perhaps the number of people who have been killed or injured for their iPhones will diminish.