Smartphone theft has been on the rise for a while, and numerous measures, including phone tracking and kill switches, are floating around as possible disincentives for thieves. An FCC report released Thursday shows that these strategies look promising but the overall theft problem is still critical. More than 1 million smartphones are stolen each year, and 34 percent of smartphone owners still don’t turn on any security controls.
The FCC reports that in New York City, for example, 55 percent of all larcenies (thefts without force) included or were related to smartphones, and 46 percent of robberies (thefts with force or the threat of force) involved smartphones. In San Francisco the rates were even worse: Fifty-nine percent of robberies involved theft of a smartphone. And the report points out that 69 percent of the stolen San Francisco devices were iPhones.
In general, though, it is difficult to get any accurate statistics about smartphone theft nationwide, and the FCC’s Technological Advisory Council Subcommittee on Mobile Device Theft Prevention, which prepared the report, is open about this fact. It also notes that it’s hard to determine the flow of stolen goods once they leave owners’ hands, or the characteristics of the thief population. The report explains:
There are no current official national or international smartphone theft statistics. ... The large number of law enforcement agencies in this country ... makes the aggregation of mobile device theft data from law enforcement agencies a significant challenge ... [and] there is considerable concern that the reported theft rate may be under reported, especially in cities that have not established a law enforcement focus on this criminal activity area.
One heartening finding is that security measures like Apple’s Activation Lock in Find My iPhone—which requires a username and password before anyone can turn off tracking on a device, erase it, or reactivate it on a new phone plan—seem to be working. The stats are preliminary for major cities in the United States plus London, but the FCC seems cautiously optimistic. It wrote, “Anti-theft solutions help provide a set of capabilities to deter smartphone theft, as well as to help consumers in the event of loss.”
In some studies the FCC found that as many as half of smartphone users were taking security precautions like using a PIN. And the FCC also noted that 75 percent of respondents in one survey said they felt that protecting their device was their responsibility, which might show that consumers are open to taking steps to protect their smartphones if they have access to information on how to do it.
Jamie Hastings, the vice president of external and state affairs at the telecom industry trade group CTIA (the Wireless Association), said in a statement that the report “clearly shows a thoughtful and thorough effort to bring all of the stakeholders—from law enforcement to carriers to device manufacturers—together to develop a plan to assist law enforcement to prevent mobile device theft.”
Her statement went on to talk about the timeframe for adding new security features to smartphones, and hinted at friction between industry and the FCC concerning timing and deadlines. She said, “We must all work together to achieve our shared objectives as soon practical, but we need to be careful in setting artificial deadlines on some stakeholders with respect to implementing technical changes.”
It used to be that a thief would be stupid not to steal a smartphone. And though device theft isn’t declining yet, lawmakers and manufacturers will hopefully be able to standardize solid security measures across all devices to make them less obvious targets.