London mayor joins NY, SF in battle against smartphone thefts

Boris Johnson joins the call for smartphone makers to do more to combat street 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.

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.

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.

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 fuelling 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.

Martyn Williams covers mobile telecoms, Silicon Valley and general technology breaking news for The IDG News Service. Follow Martyn on Twitter at @martyn_williams. Martyn's e-mail address is martyn_williams@idg.com

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