The voices of Urban Institute's researchers and staff
October 4, 2013

Will iOS7 protect you from iCrime?

October 4, 2013

 

The violent crime rate in America has declined 19 out of the last 21 years. So what happened in the two years—2005 and 2006—when violence (and muggings in particular) went up? Ninety million iconic iPods were sold, marking the beginning of a revolution in mass communication.

In addition to connecting us in novel ways, the iPod and its distinctive white ear buds, $400 price tag, and tuned-out users were new and inviting targets for criminals. Almost a decade later, iCrime continues to claim a big share of urban crime.

Now, finally, we are being told there is a solution. iOS7, Apple’s new operating system for personal media devices, contains a “kill switch” that allows users to electronically disable a lost or stolen device.

So, will this stop iCrime? Maybe, but it is a costly approach— and there is an even better solution.

People steal devices because there is a market where they can profitably be re-sold. Demand for stolen devices is driven by below (legal) market prices. So the key to reducing iCrime is to either raise the price for the customer, or raise the price for the thief by making the theft too risky an endeavor. The kill switch in iOS7 raises the price for the purchaser of a stolen device. Purchasing a below-market price device contains some risk, and risk increases the effective price.

The kill switch raises that price. Sophisticated sellers of stolen devices can get around the kill switch by jailbreaking the phone. Unsophisticated sellers will just sell inoperable phones. Either way, the device’s value is greatly (or totally) diminished and that effectively raises the price.

That should reduce iCrime, at least for some Apple products.

But on the flip side, we know how to raise the price for the thief, and that’s a better solution.

In 1990, there were over 100,000 vehicles stolen in New York City. Last year, there were only about 10,000. A big part of the reduction is insurance companies fighting insurance fraud. Much of the rest is about better standard security on motor vehicles. But it is also about LoJack.

Once the police are notified that a LoJack-equipped car has been stolen, the LoJack is activated and officers are alerted when they are proximate to a stolen car and can recover it, hopefully with the thief still in it.

LoJack increases the risk of detection, apprehension, and incarceration. And the fact that it’s invisible means that thieves have no way of knowing which cars have it, so even non-LoJacked cars benefit from the technology’s protection. As a result, a lot of potential car thieves have been priced out of the car theft market.

A similar setup for recovering stolen devices is easy to imagine. The technology already exists and it would be easy to implement a LoJack-like arrangement between police and internet service providers. Similar policing arrangements have been used successfully for decades.

There are two barriers that have nothing to do with technology. One is that a stolen device may not be worth enough to for the victim to even bother with a police report, especially if the device’s value is close to or below their insurance deductible.

A bigger problem is that because these are relatively low-dollar crimes, law enforcement may not prioritize their investigation even if the crime is reported. In many police agencies, the thinking is that the crime itself probably won’t lead to jail time, so why divert officers from more serious crimes to chase down stolen tablets?

That line of thinking is a big mistake and a huge missed opportunity. Law enforcement should prioritize these cases because they are a cheap sorting mechanism. Some of New York City’s much-ballyhooed crime reduction was purportedly due to police actively booking low-level offenders for things like turnstile jumping because it was a cheap way to find lots of people with outstanding warrants for serious crimes. The same goes for chasing down iPerps.

While the iCrime itself may not be worth the time, some of the iPerps certainly will be.

So while the iOS7 kill switch may help slow iCrime, good old-fashioned law enforcement may be even better.

 

Photo by Marcio Jose Sanchez/AP

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