SF district attorney thinks of smartphone theft differently after leading SFPD

Q&A: CNET met with San Francisco D.A. George Gascon to talk about his push for a smartphone anti-theft bill, which is likely headed to a Thursday vote in California's state senate.

Richard Nieva Former senior reporter
Richard Nieva was a senior reporter for CNET News, focusing on Google and Yahoo. He previously worked for PandoDaily and Fortune Magazine, and his writing has appeared in The New York Times, on CNNMoney.com and on CJR.org.
Richard Nieva
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San Francisco District Attorney George Gascon is one of the regulators leading the push on smartphone antitheft legislation. James Martin/CNET

Early in 2013, San Francisco District Attorney George Gascon reached out to Tim Cook with a proposal: How about putting anti-theft software on the iPhone?

A year later, he still hasn't spoken to Apple's CEO.

The cold shoulder hasn't prevented Gascon and other government officials from trying to push through a law that would require smartphone makers to include that kind of software in their devices. A proposal for one such bill is expected to come up for a vote on Thursday before California's state senate.

The law, spearheaded by Gascon and California State Sen. Mark Leno, would mandate so-called " kill switch" technology, requiring smartphone makers like Apple to include software that lets users wipe clean, or remove all their data from the phone remotely. That basically renders the phone inoperable if stolen. It's part of a nascent national push by other state law enforcement agencies, with New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman -- who has worked closely with Gascon -- leading the charge in New York.

After writing two letters to Cook, Gascon, who served as chief of the San Francisco Police Department before becoming the city's DA in 2011, eventually met with Apple General Counsel Bruce Sewell to discuss a solution for what Gascon calls an "epidemic." One in every three robberies in the United States involves the theft of a mobile device, according to the Federal Communications Commission, On Gascon's home turf, over half of thefts involve phones or tablets. And across the bay in the city of Oakland, that number jumps up to more than 75 percent.

Apple in September added an anti-theft feature to its Find My iPhone app -- which uses GPS tracking to locate a lost phone -- called "activation lock." The new feature makes it harder for someone to use a stolen phone by requiring a user's Apple ID and password before they can turn off Find My iPhone's tracking, sign out of Apple's iCloud online storage service, and reactivate a locked phone.

Earlier this month, Samsung launched its own anti-theft feature called "reactivation lock," which prevents a locked phone from being made operable again, even through a factory reset.

Apple, the world's No. 2 maker of smartphones behind Samsung, did not return request a for comment. Samsung declined to comment.

San Francisco District Attorney George Gascon James Martin/CNET

There has also been pushback from the wireless carrier industry, which argues that mandating "kill switch" technology leaves consumers vulnerable to hackers who could maliciously wipe away a phone's data. However, government officials have said the wireless industry's resistance has to do with money, specifically losing business from insurance partners.

"It's an industry not being transparent," Gascon told CNET.

The CTIA, a trade organization that represents the wireless telecom industry, declined to make Chief Executive Steve Largent available for this story.

Last week, the CTIA announced a pledge ensuring a "baseline anti-theft tool" will come preloaded or be available for download on phones made and sold by participating handset makers and carriers, including Apple, Samsung, Google (which makes the widely-used Android mobile operating system), AT&T, Verizon, Sprint and T-Mobile. While government officials applauded the move, their biggest qualm is that the antitheft measures remain opt-in. Because they're not automatically turned on, consumers may forget to activate them -- which defeats the purpose of having the software there as a deterrent for criminals.

In an hour-long interview at San Francisco's Hall of Justice on April 21, Gascon, who uses an iPhone, talked about how he came to the issue. Here are edited excerpts from the conversation:

CNET: What compelled you to take the lead on smartphone theft?

Gascon: Back in the fall of 2012, I continued to see the growth of cell phone robberies, and the impact it was having on people here in the city, and the impact it was having on our work. And based on my experience back in the '90s and dealing with automobile manufacturers and looking at how to make it more difficult to steal stereo systems from cars, and remembering how that whole process took place, as well as theft deterrent, having auto manufacturers agree to put more theft deterrence in their vehicles, I started to talk to some people in the industry, engineer types, about the idea of a kill switch.

As a former chief of police, in policing, you see how people get hurt by crime in a very real way. You see people physically hurt, when they're in a lot of pain. By the time they get to the D.A. and to the court, usually weeks, a month, has gone by and everything is more sterile. As a police officer, you see it firsthand, and it leaves a very different imprint in your mind.

Who did you reach out to?

Gascon: In December of 2012, I reached out to AT&T, to have a conversation with the industry. That led to a conference call with the CTIA and the big carriers -- AT&T, Verizon, T-Mobile, and Sprint. During that conversation in January 2012, basically, CTIA took the lead in the conversation, and what the CTIA representative indicated was a couple of thing. Number one: the technology to do this was not available today, and number two: if it were available, it would certainly be up to the manufacturers to make this happen.

[The four carriers did not respond to requests for comment.]

So we finished the conversation basically in agreement that I needed to go to the manufactures, and if they were able to come up with the solution, than the carriers would embrace it. That led me to reach out to apple first. I reached out to Apple, Google and Samsung, but Apple was really my primary focus early on. Primarily because they were a local company, and that was one of the biggest problems here, for us, regionally.

Did you talk to Tim Cook?

Gascon: No, not directly to Tim Cook. But I reached out to him. We put a letter out directly to him. And that resulted in Apple sending a government liaison attorney who came to talk to me and my staff here in this office. And during that conversation, that person indicated that the technology wasn't available today; it would be difficult to have anything in the near future because the two next generations of iPhones had been developed before Tim Cook even became the CEO of Apple -- basically implying that there's nothing that can be done today. And if any solutions were coming, it would be a long time. I wasn't satisfied with that answer because I'd already done some level of investigative work with people in the industry that told me the technology was very possible.

So I wrote a second letter to Mr. Cook -- basically a little more pointed -- indicating my dissatisfaction with the results of the conversation with the representative. That led to my receiving a call from Apple's general counsel.

First of all, he was apologetic of how the conversation went before, and he indicated that Apple would work with us to come up with a solution that would be acceptable with what we were trying to do -- a commitment of working together.

The bill being presented is deliberately non-specific about how manufacturers should implement the anti-theft software. But, in your opinion, what's the best way to do it?

Gascon: We obviously don't want to dictate how the technology would work because I think every manufacturer or carrier may have its own way of achieving the outcome. The ideal outcome to me is that when you purchase a phone, the system is preloaded with the mechanism necessary to activate your kill switch technology. And at the same time they're setting you up with all the other systems that you normally set up when you buy your phone, your kill switch technology is enabled. And at that point, if you as a consumer decide you don't want to use this, you have the ability to simply turn off that enabler and opt out. But if you don't, your phone is protected and the system is pre-enabled.

What happens if the bill doesn't make it past the senate?

Gascon: We like to remain optimistic. But if it doesn't get passed, we'll go back and evaluate why it didn't and keep pushing on it. The majority of the legislators I think realize that this is a very important consumer protection bill. And I hope they are not influenced by the industry. And that they will do the right thing.