Make the iPhone unstealable

By David Shenk
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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. 
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Photo: The Brooklyn Paper / Bess Adler

[Full disclosure: I own Apple stock.]

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2010/01/make-the-iphone-unstealable/33529/