Make the iPhone unstealable

My wife's iPhone was snatched a few weeks ago on the sidewalk in front of our house (reenactment for our local paper, above). I almost had mine swiped the other night in the exact same way. Our downstairs neighbor has had several taken. Both of my brothers have had their iPhones stolen, and several close friends. I haven't seen national data, but in our Brooklyn neighborhood, iPhone theft is rampant.

On one level, this is not surprising at all. The iPhone is valuable and very easy pickings. 

On the other hand, it's plain bizarre that 30 million iPhone owners have to become sitting iDucks. The iPhone is essentially a tracking device; each unit is designed to tell the world where it is at all times. Apple already provides a "Find my iPhone" tracking service to subscribers of their MobileMe service. Is it asking too much for them to take it one step further and program iPhones to reach out to the police the moment they're reported stolen?

Once reported stolen, a snatched-iPhone would automatically:  
- Send a signal of its serial number and location to a Web site accessible by the police.
- Constantly flash "I'm Stolen" on its screen until being reset by the owner or by Apple.
- Periodically call its own voicemail and record the ambient conversation.
- E-mail photographs to a predesignated address.

A technologist could tell me why some of this may be a little harder than it seems, but my larger point is this: with not too much effort, Apple could not only render the iPhone unstealable (and eliminate suspicions that they actually don't mind consumer iPhone theft, since it means more sales), but also help to pioneer the bright side of our surveillance society. 

We're hurtling toward a world of total surveillance, and there are obviously aspects of this that we should all find creepy. But there also are some tangible benefits. In a world where everything is recorded and tracked, petty crime and pre-meditated violence should become much, much easier to deter. And that's a very good thing. 

Is it too much to ask highly-profitable technology companies to help that bright side emerge sooner rather than later? I'm asking Apple to do its part.

Thirty-three million iPhones have been sold, and counting. 

[Full disclosure: I own Apple stock.]

Presented by

David Shenk is a writer on genetics, talent and intelligence. He is the author of Data Smog, The Forgetting, and most recently, The Genius In All of Us. More

David Shenk is the author of six books, including Data Smog ("indispensable"—The New York Times), The Immortal Game ("superb"—The Wall Street Journal), and the bestselling The Forgetting ("a remarkable addition to the literature of the science of the mind."—The Los Angeles Times ). He has contributed to National Geographic, Slate, The New York Times, Gourmet, Harper's, The New Yorker, The American Scholar, and National Public Radio. Shenk's work inspired the Emmy-award winning PBS documentary The Forgetting and was featured in the Oscar-nominated feature Away From Her. His latest book, The Genius In All Of Us, was published in March 2010. Shenk has advised the President's Council on Bioethics and is a popular speaker. Click here to follow him on Twitter.

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register with Disqus.

Please note that The Atlantic's account system is separate from our commenting system. To log in or register with The Atlantic, use the Sign In button at the top of every page.

blog comments powered by Disqus


Cryotherapy's Dubious Appeal

James Hamblin tries a questionable medical treatment.


Confessions of Moms Around the World

In Europe, mothers get maternity leave, discounted daycare, and flexible working hours.


How Do Trees Know When It's Spring?

The science behind beautiful seasonal blooming

More in National

From This Author

Just In