Questions and answers about the iPhone 'kill switch'
(USA Today) Q: If Apple's Activation Lock makes a stolen iPhone useless, at what point do people stop trying to steal them?
A: The Activation Lock Apple added to iOS 7's "Find My Phone" feature functions as a kill switch; once you enable it, your phone is off-limits to anybody without your iCloud password, even if they wipe and reset the phone. Its resale value should fall to zero.
And with 87% of iOS devices running that version of Apple's mobile operating system, the odds of Activation Lock securing an iDevice are high. So why do the numbers of iPhone thefts remain so high?
In San Francisco, for example, iPhone thefts accounted for 67% of all robberies earlier this year, District Attorney George Gascón told SF Weekly last month. In New York, thefts of Apple devices added up to 14% of all crime in the city in 2012, leading the New York Police Department to assign a team of cops to work iTheft cases.
A few reasons came up in conversations with Apple experts and law-enforcement types.
• It's so easy to snatch a phone that thieves don't mind the chance that they'll be stuck with a bricked device.
"Criminals are opportunistic," noted San Francisco Police Department spokesman Albie Esparza, while people on phones "can be so oblivious to surroundings they are not aware of a potential thief." In Washington, the Metro transit system saw so many snatch-and-grab thefts happen — more than two phones a day in a two-week period in January 2013 — that it posted its own smartphone-security cheat sheet.
• There's still a decent chance that a stolen iPhone won't run iOS 7 or won't have Find My Phone enabled.
One friend who had an iPhone stolen had shut off Find My Phone after reading about how it had been abused by a hacker to remote-wipe tech writer Mat Honan's iPhone, iPad and laptop. Plus, most iPhones running iOS 7 (the 5c excluded) look almost identical to models without it. And if a user waits to run Find My Phone, that can give a criminal time to unload the device.
• Phone thieves can defeat Activation Lock on older versions of iOS 7.
Activation Lock has been picked before: One security fix in iOS 7.1 closed a vulnerability that allowed a thief to disable Find My Phone without a password. And reports have since emerged that you can still circumvent that defense if an iPhone user hasn't set a screen-unlock passcode. That would be an unwise thing to do, but it takes all kinds.
• An inoperative iPhone can still retain some resale value, even if only for parts.
Metro spokesman Dan Stessel suggested that some stolen iPhones could be resold through buy-back programs like ecoATM kiosks that don't involve face-to-face transactions. (An ecoATM representative sent a statement: "Our policy is not to knowingly purchase phones with Find My iPhone activated, and we continue to improve our technology to that end.")
One OS X and iOS consultant suggested that iPhone components like the camera or the screen could fetch a decent price, while an iOS developer wondered if thieves could damage a stolen iPhone until it doesn't turn on, then claim the lower price that gadget-recycling sites pay for broken hardware.
But having Activation Lock enabled — and promptly reporting a stolen iPhone to your wireless carrier and the police — can still help. Doing nothing does not.
Android users don't have an equivalent of Apple's kill-switch defense, aside from a handful of Samsung phones that can run Absolute Software's LoJack app. Last month, the wireless-industry trade group CTIA, all four nationwide carriers and smartphone firms including Google, Microsoft and Samsung committed to making kill-switch apps an option on every phone made from July 2015 onward.
The new Samsung Galaxy S5 and HTC One M8 offer low-battery modes that disable or downgrade a variety of functions to keep your phone going for hours longer. Third-party apps can offer some of the same options, but in a pinch you can get much of the same benefit by disabling mobile data on the phone. In iOS, you do that in the Settings app's Cellular category; in Android, open the Settings app and select "Data Usage."
Nothing Internet-linked will work unless you're on Wi-Fi, but you can still call and text (what we once called "using a phone"). And if any runaway apps have been going online too often, this step should stop them from doing further harm.