London mayor joins NY, SF in battle against smartphone thefts

London Mayor Boris Johnson has signed on to a smartphone anti-theft initiative recently launched by top law enforcement officials in New York and San Francisco. He is the first official outside of the U.S. to join the effort pushing for major smartphone makers to include technology that would render a smartphone useless if it’s lost or stolen.

Like New York and San Francisco, smartphone thefts are a major problem in London and account for a large portion of serious street crime: Around 10,000 phones are stolen each month in the U.K. capital, while roughly half of all robberies in New York and San Francisco involve smartphones.

U.S. law enforcement officials are calling on smartphone makers to add technology that would render stolen phones useless. Now London Mayor Boris Johnson is joining their efforts.

In an effort to curb the thefts, New York State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman and San Francisco District Attorney George Gascón formed the Secure Our Smartphones initiative.

It is pushing Apple, Samsung, Google, and Microsoft to design systems into their phones that permanently disable a phone, or “brick” it, so that stolen handsets cannot be re-used and thus removing the incentive to steal them.

"It's important that we get as many behind us as we can," said Gascón in a telephone interview on Wednesday. "Having Mayor Johnson join us continues to build momentum and helps us communicate that this is an international problem."

Apple and Samsung have already responded.

Apple has built an activation lock into its upcoming iOS 7 operating system that requires a user ID and password to reset or reactivate a phone that has been locked, disabled or wiped. Samsung is installing “Lojack for Mobile Devices” on new models of its Galaxy S4.

Gascón had a chance to try out both features at his office last month, when representatives from the two companies demonstrated the technology.

But absent from the meeting were representatives of Google and Microsoft, which to date haven't proposed any technology to help solve the problem. Last month, Gascón criticized the two companies for failing to answer his call.

On Wednesday, Gascón said he remains critical of both, but especially Google.

"They control a large segment of the market. It's critical that Google come up with a solution and we want to make sure we continue this dialogue," he said. "We want to work in cooperation but we are prepared to take other measures. Too many people are getting injured and the cost to consumers is skyrocketing. This is one of the few areas where technology can help evade the problem."

Schneiderman hinted at possible legal measures when he first wrote to major cellphone makers asking for their help. His letters noted two parts of state law that deal with deceptive trade practices and referenced statements the companies had previously made regarding security of their phones.

Johnson wrote to the U.K. CEOs of the major manufacturers in July asking them to help tackle the problem and plans to convene a meeting with them in September.

“Residents and visitors to our city need better protection from the menace of smartphone theft,” Johnson said in a statement. “Cities like London, New York and San Francisco all face the same challenge, and that is why London is joining the Secure Our Smartphones campaign to help find a global solution. We need the industry to take this issue seriously and come up with a technical solution that can squash the illegal smartphone market that is fueling this crime.”

In an effort to curb smartphone thefts, the U.K. was one of the first countries to launch a register of stolen phones. The database should ensure that phones reported lost or stolen are blocked from re-activation, but it doesn’t have global coverage so bypassing it can be as simple as taking or selling a phone overseas.

Major U.S. carriers launched a similar database late last year, but to date the information isn’t universally shared domestically, let alone internationally.

Updated 8/7/2013 at 2 p.m. with additional comments from Gascón and Schneiderman.

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