The economics of petty theft is an interesting chicken-and-egg game. That’s how New York City police officers recently ended up imploring consumers to download the new iPhone operating system, iOS 7. They want you to be the egg.
Last week, New York Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman was among leading law enforcement officials calling on consumers to install the new software because of its security features.
“While it is too early to tell if [the new operating system’s] Activation Lock will be a comprehensive solution to the epidemic of ‘Apple Picking’ crimes that have victimized iPhone and iPad owners around the world, we believe it is a step forward and strongly urge iPhone users to download iOS 7,” he said in a statement, also signed by San Francisco District Attorney George Gascón.
That sent police officers onto subway platforms to pass out fliers, urging the download of the new software.
“ATTENTION APPLE USERS!!!!” the printout said. “By downloading the new operating system, should your device be lost or stolen, it cannot be reprogrammed without an Apple ID and password,” and directed users to Apple’s website.
Some Twitter users memorialized the unusual event, but kudos to NYPD for the proactive strategy.
Smartphones Are the New Car Stereo
There aren’t enough cops to catch GPS and smartphone thieves, just as there weren’t enough cops to catch car stereo thieves in the 1980s. Instead, society and technology have to invent a way to make the stolen gadgets worthless. When criminals can’t fence stolen radios — say, radios that won’t work outside the cars they were installed in — they stop stealing them. Of course, they don’t stop right away. They only stop after the sales channel slowly tells them there is no market.
With car radios, the egg had to come before the chicken, but it’s not quite that simple. Consumers were asked to invest in car radios with new anti-theft technology without an immediate payoff. Many spent the money and still had their car windows busted while criminals figured out what happened. But eventually, enough car radios lost their street value that radio theft plummeted.
And so it must be with smartphones. With iOS 7, Apple has added a great feature to its new iPhone operating system that has the potential to render stolen phones useless. It’s called “Activation Lock,” and the principle is simple. For some time, users have been able to use the iPhone’s “Find My iPhone” feature to track stolen phones, but it was deeply flawed. Criminals could easily turn the service off. Apple’s new OS requires the username and password to disable the feature, meaning the vast majority of criminals who go Apple picking will be carrying around a nifty thief location device if they turn it on.
Over time, criminals will begin to realize that stealing iPhones is a bad strategy. But they won’t know that their economy has changed right away, so they will continue “Apple picking” for some time. When will the tide turn? When enough consumers download the new feature and implement it to reach critical mass, and word gets out to criminals that they better target Android phones only.
It Only Works if You Use It
The economics of this situation don’t neatly parallel the car stereo problem. Critically, Apple’s update is free. Consumers are not being asked to invest in a product that really only helps future generations of would-be theft victims, as they were in the 1980s. For a few minutes of their time, they can help end what some call a theft epidemic.
But economics is still holding back this plan — behavioral economics. Unless a decent majority of users voluntarily download the new operating system, criminals will still have the upper hand. Imagine 50% install it. Bad guys will simply steal twice as many iPhones to make up for what will only be an irritant in their industry. What’s the critical threshold? It’s hard to say, but you’d have to imagine north of 80%. Of course, users will eventually get the new OS when they upgrade their phones, but that could take several years. Law enforcement wants old phones (and iPads, and iPod Touch devices) updated now.
Because Apple users tend to love Apple products, 80% is not out of the question. One day after iOS 7 was released, 18% of users had downloaded it, according to online advertising firm Chikita.
But there’s another behavioral issue at play. Users have to turn on Find Me Now for Activation Lock to work.
As you recognize the behavioral barriers line up, you’ll understand why exasperated law enforcement officials, many part of the Secure our Smartphones initiative, ended up handing out fliers on subway platforms begging users to install perhaps history’s most sophisticated piece of consumer software.
Overcoming the Barriers
There are reasons NOT to install iOS 7. Some folks don’t like the new keyboard. There are claims that it impacts battery life. And most of all: if you’re like me, every software upgrade is terrifying, representing another opportunity for something to go wrong.
For that reason, it’s a shame Apple has taken a very good idea and held it hostage, forcing users to download an entire OS upgrade to take advantage of Activation Lock. A stand-alone update would be nice. And, as Schneiderman said in his letter, it would be nice for Apple for make the new feature opt-out, rather than opt-in, to beat the behavioral economics working against it. Until then, how about offering a free song or other freebie to users who turn it on? We all benefit from lower crime through price decreases and lower insurance premiums, but many people won’t take a step for the vague promise of fighting crime in the future.
Your move, Android makers.