Apple's activation lock feature gets mixed response from law officials

By Michael Mayday , Jun 12, 2013 11:19 AM EDT

Apple's new "Activation Lock," a security feature which prevents a stolen iPhone from being used, may have knocked back some criticisms by law enforcement agencies when it was announced on Monday at WWDC 2013.

According to the Federal Communications Commission, about 40 percent of all thefts in major cities involve some form of mobile communications, and the iPhone is the most frequently targeted device due to its popularity and ability to fetch a high price in the U.S. and abroad.

Activation Lock will let Apple users remotely lock or wipe their iPhones in the event it's stolen or lost. The phone can only be reactivated when the owner enters their AppleID and password into the physical device. If successful, the program could be a huge deterrent to smartphone thefts.

Local politicians and police departments have been going after Apple, and other smartphone makers, over stolen smartphones, which has grown into a major problem in many cities. New York City and San Francisco attorney generals are planning to hold a summit with smartphone makers on Thursday to discuss possible technologies which will deter thefts.

The announcement of Activation Lock, however, was cautiously welcomed by San Francisco and New York City officials.

"We are appreciative of the gesture made by Apple to address smartphone theft," New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman and San Francisco District Attorney George Gascon said in a joint statement. "We reserve judgment on the activation lock feature until we can understand its actual functionality."

iPhones and other iDevices, particularly on inner-city public transportation, are lucrative targets for thieves. And while Apple does include a "Find My iPhone" feature on all of its iDevices - which allows users to remotely track and wipe their devices - it still doesn't deter thefts. Experienced thieves can deactivate the feature or turn the phone off so they can't be tracked.

Activation lock, if it works as promised, could quickly put an end to all that.

But questions surrounding Activation Lock still remain. How will users be able to legally resell the device when they're looking for an upgrade? Will they have to, as VentureBeat suggests, go through Apple to sell a used device? What about Activation Lock's security? How will the service keep hackers from remotely locking a legitimate user from a phone? Could Apple remotely turn Activation Lock on if a customer calls?

"We are hopeful that the cell phone industry will imbed persistent technology that is free to consumers that will make a phone inoperable once stolen, even if the device is off, the SIM card is removed or the phone is modified by a thief to avoid detection," the prosecutors said.

Apple is currently beta testing Activation Lock for the iPhone, with iPads following shortly.

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