Tag Archives: technology

Can the Epidemic of Smartphone Thefts be Stopped?

By Kim Smiley

About 1.6 million handheld devices were stolen in the United States in 2012, the majority of which were smartphones.  In fact, the frequency at which the popular Apple devices are taken has given rise to a whole new term, “apple picking”.  Stolen smartphones cost consumers nearly $30 billion a year.  These thefts affect a significant number of smartphone owners with approximately 10 percent reporting that they have had a device stolen.

The problem of smartphone theft can be analyzed by building a Cause Map, a method for performing a visual root cause analysis.  A Cause Map is built by completing an Outline by both filling in the basic background information and listing how the issue impacts the overall goals.  The impacts to the goals from the Outline are then used as the first step in building the Cause Map.  Causes are then added by asking “why” questions to determine what other causes contributed to an issue.  (To view a high level Cause Map of this issue, click on “Download PDF” above.)

So why do so many smartphone get taken?  Smartphones are a popular target because it is lucrative to resell them, they are relatively easy to steal, and many of the crimes go unpunished.  Smartphones are fairly easy to steal because they are readily available since so many people carry them, and they are both small and light weight.  Many criminals who steal smartphones go unpunished because there are so many of them taken and it is difficult to locate the thieves.  Many stolen smartphones are shipped overseas which further complicates the situation.

The black market for smartphones is lucrative because the items are popular and relatively expensive to buy new.  People buy stolen smartphones because they are cheaper and they are able to be used by the “new owner”, especially overseas where the networks are different and phones deactivated in the US may be able to be used.

One of the possible solutions suggested to reduce the number of smartphone thefts is to include a kill switch in smartphone software.  This kill switch would essentially make the phone worthless because it would no longer function no matter where it was in the world.  If smartphones no longer have resale value, then there would be little incentive to steal them and the number of thefts should dramatically decrease.  While this idea is elegant in its simplicity, like most things there is more that needs to be considered.

The addition of a kill switch was recently rejected by cellphone carriers because of concerns about hacking and problems with reactivation.  If hackers found a way to flip the kill switches they would have the ability to destroy a huge number of smartphones from anywhere in the world.  Depending on how many users were targeted this could have a huge impact, which could be especially problematic for people who use their phones in an official capacity like law enforcement. It doesn’t take much imagination to see how this scenario could go horribly wrong. The proposed kill switch is also permanent so users won’t be able to reactivate their phones and any stolen phones that were recovered would be useless.  Companies continue to work on a number of ideas to make it more difficult to resell smartphones, but there isn’t general agreement on the best approach yet.  Only time will tell if the tide of smartphone thefts has peaked.