Smartphones driving violent crime across U.S.

An IDG News Service investigation finds guns and knives are used in a quarter of all robberies of cellphones in San Francisco

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"The blacklist is good, but one of the easiest things we can do to make it more effective is more worldwide data sharing," said Kevin Mahaffey, CTO of mobile security company Lookout. "There is some sharing in different parts of the world, but not all operators share their lists."

In the U.S., that's beginning to happen, said Chris Guttman-McCabe, vice president of regulatory affairs at the CTIA. AT&T and T-Mobile, which share a common network technology, have a common database and all U.S. carriers plan to have a single database up and running by November that covers phones based on the new LTE cellular technology.

U.S. carriers have also begun supplying information to an international database that covers 43 countries, and the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has been talking to Canada, Mexico and some South American countries about getting on board, said Guttman-McCabe.

CCTV image
In this CCTV image from London, a suspected thief grabs a cell phone as he cycles by a victim.

So now, the main push is to educate users about the existence of the block list and get them to secure their phones with a password, screen lock and software that can remotely track or wipe a stolen handset. Smartphone makers committed to include this information with new handsets sold from the beginning of this year.

Even if universal, a global blocklist still would have shortcomings. While technically difficult, it's possible in some phones to rewrite the IMEI number, providing them with a new identity and bypassing the network lockout.

In an attempt to combat this, Senator Charles Schumer, a Democrat from New York, introduced a bill into the U.S. Congress last year (S.3186) that sought a five-year jail sentence for anyone who rewrites an IMEI number. The bill was referred to the Judiciary Committee but died when the congressional session came to a close.

"To me, while well-intended, that's not necessarily where the solution is," said George GascA3n, San Francisco's district attorney, in an interview. "We already have way too many people in prison, we have enough laws on the books, and the last thing we want to do is continue to take young people and put them in prison for long periods of time."

"What we need to do is remove the marketability of these items," he said.

GascA3n, who has become one of the most outspoken members of the law enforcement community on the issue, is proposing the electronic equivalent of a self-destruct command.

"What we need is a technical solution, we need a kill switch that when a phone gets reported stolen the manufacturer or the carrier or a combination of both are going to render that phone inoperable anywhere," he said.

To work, it would have to rewrite the phone's basic software so the device becomes completely useless and cannot be restored, even if it was later recovered.

GascA3n says his message has not been received well by the carriers.

"I started last year by meeting with one of the carriers," he said. "They seemed to be genuinely concerned and wanted to set up a follow-up meeting."

San Francisco resident Regina Ridley recounts how she was robbed of her iPad on a San Francisco MUNI bus

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