Why NYC Cops Are Going Around Telling People to Upgrade Their iPhones

The Citizen's Guide to the Future
Sept. 23 2013 5:33 PM

Why NYC Cops Are Going Around Telling People to Upgrade Their iPhones

NYPD officers are really excited about iOS 7.
NYPD officers are really excited about iOS 7.

Photo by Andrew Burton/Getty Images

Old NYPD tactic: Stop and frisk. New NYPD tactic: Stop and upgrade.

No kidding, now that they've been (rightly) prohibited from patting down random minorities for no good reason, New York City cops are apparently moseying around town handing out flyers advising the people of Gotham to avail themselves of Apple's new mobile operating system. (See tweet at bottom for a picture.) Despite what some might assume, the recommendation has nothing to do with the fingerprint-sensing technology on the new iPhone 5S. That feature doesn't actually make the phone more secure—it just makes securing your phone more convenient.

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Rather, as AllThingsD explains, the NYPD is pleased with a less-hyped feature called Activation Lock, which comes with the iOS 7 software update on any compatible iPhone, iPad, or iPod Touch. Basically, Activation Lock makes it impossible for a thief to deactivate the device's "Find My iPhone" or "Find my iPad" feature without the owner's Apple ID and Apple password. That closes a gaping loophole in previous Apple devices' security systems. What good is a theft-tracking feature that thieves can turn off at will? In fact, New York attorney general Eric Schneiderman has been pushing Apple to adopt tighter theft deterrents for a while now, and he and San Francisco District Attorney George Gascon praised iOS 7 for including Activation Lock upon its release last week.

Even I'll admit that, all things considered, Activation Lock is probably a more compelling reason to upgrade your iPhone than iOS 7's nifty new level tool. But there are downsides. As Mike Elgan points out on Cult of Mac, there appears to be no way to override the Activation Lock if, say, you forget your password and are unable to reset it. Elgan also worries that thieves will continue to steal iPhones and sell them to unsuspecting buyers who don't realize they're permanently locked, though that seems to me to be mainly a good argument for not buying stolen iPhones. And he imagines disgruntled employees locking their company-owned devices before handing them in upon their dismissal.

Those caveats aside, Activation Lock seems like a long-overdue security upgrade, especially for a company whose devices' appeal has long made them top targets for thieves. If it sounds like a waste of time for New York City cops to focus their efforts on Apple owners given Android's far-greater market share, consider that Apple device thefts have been soaring in the city, to such an extent that Mayor Michael Bloomberg blamed them for an overall rise in the city's crime rate last year. The trend of thieves targeting victims based on the telltale white Apple headphones even has a name: "Apple-picking." If they get the message that a lot of those Apples will turn into bricks once stolen, that could take some of the shine off of them. If so, mockable as it sounds, the NYPD's flyer campaign might just do more to bring down the city's total crime numbers than stop-and-frisk ever did.

Now if only people could put an Activation Lock on their fingerprints ...

Future Tense is a partnership of SlateNew America, and Arizona State University.

Will Oremus is Slate's senior technology writer.

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