Apple, others to meet with law enforcement over violent phone thefts

Representatives from Apple, Samsung, Google/Motorola, and Microsoft are set to meet with top officials in New York and San Francisco to discuss a tech solution to street theft of mobile devices.

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With violent street thefts of smartphones and other mobile gear continuing to be a problem, top law enforcement officials from New York and San Francisco will meet with Apple, Google, and other manufacturers next week to discuss possible tech solutions, such as a "kill switch" that would render stolen devices worthless.

"With 1.6 million Americans falling victim to smartphone theft in 2012, this has become a national epidemic," San Francisco District Attorney George Gascon said in a press release Wednesday. "Unlike other types of crimes, smartphone theft can be eradicated with a simple technological solution."

Gascon and New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman will meet with representatives from Apple, Google/Motorola, Samsung, and Microsoft on June 13 in New York. Schneiderman sent letters to the companies on May 13, requesting information on what they're doing to make their phones more safe and secure from thieves. And earlier in the month, The New York Times ran a piece calling attention to the issue.

"The theft of handheld devices is the fastest-growing street crime, and increasingly, incidents are turning violent," Schneiderman said in Wednesday's release. "It's time for manufacturers to be as innovative in solving this problem as they have been in designing devices that have reshaped how we live."

Google had no statement to make about the upcoming summit; we've contacted the other companies for comment and will update this post when we hear back.

The release from Schneiderman and Gascon cites a Time magazine report in noting that last year New York City saw a 40 percent increase in thefts of mobile devices. It also says approximately half of all robberies in San Francisco in 2012 involved mobile gadgets.

It also points out examples of the violent nature of some of these "Apple Picking" crimes -- including the killing of a 26-year-old Museum of Modern Art employee in the Bronx over an iPhone, the stabbing of a 27-year-old tourist in San Francisco over an iPhone, and the gunpoint mugging of a Brooklyn woman over her Android device.

Gascon began meeting with manufacturers and carriers in December "to put pressure on industry executives to implement a 'kill switch,' a technological solution that would render the phone inoperable," the release says. Crooks wipe the memories of the phones they steal and resell them, but a dead phone would obviously have no resale value.

The New York Times piece quotes a security specialist as saying that such a solution, though possible, could be gotten around by criminals -- but, he adds, if it made the process of reactivating a stolen phone costly and involved, the number of thefts would drop. The Times story also cites an SF police lieutenant in reporting that thieves in that city can make as much as $500 cash on a stolen iPhone.

Updates, 11:16 a.m. and 11:33 a.m. PT: Details added.