07/18/2013 12:00 am ET Updated Jul 18, 2013

Apple, Samsung Anti-Theft Features Tested In Smartphone Crime Probe


Security experts on Thursday will test new antitheft features recently introduced by Apple and Samsung by employing the same tactics used by thieves to resell stolen smartphones on the global black market, The Huffington Post has learned.

The experts will attempt to circumvent security features on the iPhone 5 and Samsung Galaxy S4 by swapping SIM cards inside the devices and using software to restore the phones to their original factory settings, thus deleting security upgrades installed after they are purchased, according to an official familiar with the testing. The experts will convene in San Francisco and will include officials from the Northern California Regional Intelligence Center, a unit that focuses on counterterrorism but also has expertise in cybersecurity, the official said.

Last month, Apple and Samsung announced new security features in their popular smartphones as they face pressure from law enforcement to combat a rising number of gadget-related robberies.

Apple said the Activation Lock for its new mobile operating system, iOS7, will require a thief to enter a password before a stolen iPhone can be reactivated. A company executive presented the feature as a "really powerful theft deterrent."

Samsung's new anti-theft "LoJack" feature in the Galaxy S4 will allow theft victims to delete data from the device and "stop it from ever rebooting if stolen," according to officials at Absolute Software, which created the technology for Samsung phones.

But Eric Schneiderman, New York state attorney general, and George Gascon, San Francisco district attorney, expressed skepticism that the new features will meet their demand for a "kill switch" that renders stolen phones useless anywhere in the world, undercutting their value on a global black market.

"While we are appreciative of the efforts made by Apple and Samsung to improve security of the devices they sell, we are not going to take them at their word," the two prosecutors said Thursday in a joint statement. "Today we will assess the solutions they are proposing and see if they stand up to the tactics commonly employed by thieves. Together, we are working to ensure that the industry imbed persistent technology that is effective, ubiquitous and free to consumers in every smartphone introduced to the market by next year.”

Thursday's test is a step in an ongoing investigation into the failure of Apple and other smartphone makers to create technology that would curb the soaring number of robberies targeting their products.

Gascon and Schneiderman launched their investigation, dubbed "Secure Our Smartphones," last month and enlisted help from attorneys general, district attorneys and high-level police officials from across the country.

The coalition plans to look into any "impropriety on the part of manufacturers," including whether they have not created effective anti-theft technology out of simple financial interest -- a stolen phone generates new business as crime victims buy replacements, Schneiderman and Gascon said last month.

Replacing lost or stolen cell phones costs American consumers some $30 billion per year, according to a study by the mobile security firm Lookout.

Roughly 1.6 million Americans were victims of a smartphone-related crime last year, according to Gascon. Approximately 40 percent of robberies in major cities now involve mobile devices, according to the Federal Communications Commission.

Law enforcement agencies said Apple devices are the most popular target for thieves because they hold the greatest resale value on the black market. Once stolen in the U.S., the devices are redistributed to buyers as far away as Hong Kong.

The crime wave, the subject of a Huffington Post investigation, has prompted some police departments to create special undercover task forces to catch phone thieves and buyers of stolen devices. In addition, federal law enforcement agencies have raided storefronts and warehouses in investigations into companies accused of fencing stolen phones and selling them to big-box retailers and buyers around the world.



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