Apple, Google, Microsoft make progress against phone theft

Apple, Google, Microsoft make progress against phone theft

Summary: The new Find My iPhone features in iOS7 could be a big problem for the very large stolen phone business. The Windows Phone feature is also excellent, but the counterpart in Android is nowhere near as powerful.


Police in large cities report that phone theft, sometimes called "Apple Picking," is perhaps the most significant crime problem they have. Apple, Google and Microsoft are beginning to respond to the problem, but Google is a big step behind the others.

New features in iOS 7 Find My iPhone allow the user to effectively make a phone unusable remotely, until they have it back in hand. From Apple's description:

Now turning off Find My iPhone or erasing your device requires your Apple ID and password. Find My iPhone can also continue to display a custom message, even after your device is erased. And your Apple ID and password are required before anyone can reactivate it. Which means your device is still your device. No matter where it is. [emphasis added]

Even if a locked phone is remotely wiped through the MDM interfaces it will still demand the user's iCloud credentials when booting out of the wipe.


Law enforcement officials have been asking for this for a while. Several months ago the San Francisco DA George Gascón and New York DA Eric Schneiderman were publicly pushing for a "kill switch" for phones, but Apple's solution in iOS7 seems much more pleasant and remains under the control of the user.

Another helpful factor is that the FCC has begun a Stolen Cell Phones Initiative through which carriers will check a database of stolen phone IDs before activating a phone. The program has begun, but it's not clear to me whether all the major carriers are fully participating.

Lots of folks are excited about Find my iPhone, including the New York City Police. @Hoffm on Twitter posted this image of a flyer the police were handing out urging iPhone and iPad users to upgrade to iOS 7 so that they could take advantage of Find my iPhone. It's part of a longstanding program called Operation ID to register phones by serial number with the police and to engrave them with a special NYPD serial number.

Android Device Manager configuration on Android (click for larger image)

Google recently added Android Device Manager (see images below) to the Google Settings app. This apps performs many of the same functions as Find My iPhone (locate, ring, lock and erase), but it falls short in an important way: I locked my own phone as a test and then successfully booted it into recovery mode. The option to do a factory reset/wipe was there (as were the options to load ROMs; I admit didn't test any of these on my own phone). So a thief doing this would be able to reset the phone to factory default. At this point, he may not have any of your data, but he has a phone he can sell.

Whether a particular Android phone includes particular recovery mode feature is an option for the OEM, but every one of the several Android devices I've owned has had them.

Android Device Manager from the web (click for larger image)

If the FCC database works he may not be able to sell it in the US, but as I understand it, many of these phones are shipped abroad to places where carriers aren't as picky about what they will activate.

Google recently updated this blog entry on Android Device Manager to note the addition of the remote lock feature, which is brand new.

Windows Phone also has a Find My Phone feature on that seems to have all these same features (find, ring, lock and wipe). Windows Phones do not have a power-on key sequence like Android's to bypass the OS, so the lock should prevent a wipe. Like Find my iPhone, the Windows Phone feature allows you to put a custom message on the phone (like "I'm staying at the Marriott on 3rd" or "Call my wife's phone at (123)456-7890"). In other words, the Windows Phone feature is basically on par with Find my iPhone.

I'm actually pretty optimistic that measures like these and future advances will make it so much harder to sell stolen mobile devices that the crime will lose its popularity. There definitely neesd to be more outreach; sales people in stores and the out of box experience should nag you to register the device with the services. And the sooner Android catches up, the better.

Topics: Security, Android, iPhone, Windows Phone

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  • hey u genious iphone users, did u know iOS7 makes your phone waterproof!
    • iOS7 does not make phone waterproof!

      Do not drop your IPHONE in water. The new iOS7 does NOT make it waterproof. Idiots are falling for this and destroying their phones.
      • exactly idiots aka iphone users

        next iphone update will make them microwave save.
    • I think it's absolutely wonderful

      How the mental hospitals now have internet for their patients... although the post above makes for the case for mental health care providers to monitor the actions of their patients online.
  • Find my Phone rocks

    In Windows Phone the GPS is so accurate you know exactly where the phone is. I've used it a few times.
    Dreyer Smit
    • and oldest

      Also there for 3 years, even author added those details at the end. It is there since windows phone 7.
      • Still not unique

        iOS 4 (iOS 4.2, to be exact) had it included. Microsoft had the first online tracking proposition, before they decided to point fingers, and cover up their own misdeeds.
        I hate trolls also
  • Find my iPhone

    now prevents people from being able to reactive a phone without a password. That doesn't seem quite like on par.
    • I don't get it

      Not on par with what?
      • I think he means

        Apple's new Activation Lock puts it on a different level, not on par.
        • How is it any better than the Windows Phone Find My Phone?

          I think I see all the same features
  • I think you meant

    "Apple and Microsoft are beginning to respond to the problem, but Google is a big step behind the others."

    Instead of:

    "Apple and Google are beginning to respond to the problem, but Google is a big step behind the others."
    • Yikes!

      You're right, correcting...
  • Now Apple has the means to prevent reselling of iPhones.

    • re: selling or reactivating a phone

      For those that commented negatively about this new iOS 7 Find my Phone feature of needing to log in with your apple id and password when activating a new phone that you have purchased from someone else... It's still a good thing. If you buy an iPhone from someone and it's running iOS 7, you just need to be sure they turn off Find my Phone before the transaction is complete. Easy fix. Then you can wipe it and activate as needed.
      • Huh?

        I still don't understand why preventing theft should ever be considered the manufacturer's responsibility.
        • It's not really

          But it's cool that Apple, Microsoft, and Google are taking steps to help prevent thefts nonetheless.
        • They aren't preventing theft

          They're simply taking the profit out of it. This will eventually cause thieves to try stealing something else, thus reducing phone theft.

          But it WON'T deter your crazy soon-to-be-ex-girlfriend from stealing and destroying your iPhone. She's not a rational economic actor.
          R Harris
    • reselling

      You just have to restore as new before selling and you should do that anyway.

      When you restore an iphone with ios7, it asks you for your icloud account during the initial restore process, then when you click set up as new, you just skip the step for signing on with icloud. It's then easy to sell without having to provide you icloud when they try to set it up. I've done this a couple of times already.
    • Reselling iPhones

      The rightful owner (person registering the phone) can enter his id and password, and turn off Find My iPhone, and then wipe the phone.