Smartphone security: Law enforcement to issue call for help from tech companies

(CBS News) In the U.S., one-third of robberies involve the theft of a mobile device. Top law enforcement officials from New York and San Francisco will ask for help on Thursday from the companies that make those devices. They want smartphone makers to be smarter about security.

More than half of all Americans now carry smartphones and that makes them potential targets for thieves. According to Consumer Reports, 1.6 million Americans had their smartphones stolen last year. In San Francisco, District Attorney George Gascon says nearly half the robberies in 2012 targeted cell phones, and many of the thefts were violent.

Gascon said, "It could be at gunpoint, it could be a knife, it could be a punch. ... A lot of people being hurt. We had one tourist who actually got stabbed."

When Gascon and New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman meet with smartphone makers Apple, Google, Samsung and Microsoft, they will be looking for details on how companies plan to fight the crime wave.

In a presentation this week, Apple said the so-called "kill switch" technology will be part of iPhone software available in the fall.

Craig Federighi, senior vice president of software engineering at the tech company, said, "Now with activation lock, if a thief tries to turn off 'find my iPhone' or if they even wipe the device entirely, they will not be able to reactivate it."

But CNET editor Molly Wood found Apple's announcement short on details. "We don't know very much about this feature," she said. "Presumably this would let you send a signal to that phone wherever it was so that it would deactivate the phone, and only the owner could get in with some sort of a passcode or maybe a biometric. We're not exactly sure what mechanism."

An iPhone stolen on the streets of San Francisco can quickly end up for sale on the black market half-way around the world. Now the question is, can a kill switch kill what's become a huge criminal enterprise?

Watch John Blackstone's full "CBS This Morning" report above.

The technology could be a game-changer, according to CBS News senior correspondent John Miller, a former New York Police Department deputy commissioner.

"You've got to remember, since 1994 crime has been steadily decreasing across the country because of new police strategies and techniques. The only thing we've seen go up across the country -- you saw the spike in New York, Washington, and Milwaukee, and San Francisco, was suddenly robbery and larceny. And they looked at [it] and said, 'What is driving this?' and it was all smartphone thefts, and the bulk of it was iPhone thefts and other Apple products. ... Every time there was a new iteration there was another spike because, of course, everybody wanted to get the new phone, so for police this is a big problem."

However, phone companies have historically been resistant to increasing security measures because, according to Miller, it's about the company's bottom line.

"The phone companies, the developers, the Apples, the Samsungs, and the Motorolas, they're all very good when they figure out something that's either making them lose money -- of fixing that so it stops -- or something that's going to make them money. They can move very quickly. But in this case, it was kind of another thing. Not only were they not losing money from the phone thefts, but everybody who had their phone stolen had to go out and do what? Had to go out and buy a new phone, so it's not a matter of urgency."

For more with Miller, watch his full "CTM" appearance in the video below.

City officials and politicians advocated for tech companies to make the cell phones completely inactive if they're stolen. Miller explained, "(They said,) 'The minute you make the smartphone a dumb phone, a paper weight once it's stolen, the thefts stop.' Because if the thief can't sell it, it's no good.

"Why do they not break into cars every night and steal radios out of them? Because the people who make cars and radios made it so when you rip radio out, it won't work again."

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