Apple 2.0

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The New York Times blames Apple for smartphone thefts

May 2, 2013: 6:47 AM ET

"This is a crime that could be easily fixed with a technological solution," quoth a D.A.

Photo: Michael Nagle for the New York Times

Photo: Michael Nagle for the New York Times

FORTUNE -- Slipping back into a lazy editorial stance that it rode last year all the way to a Pulitzer Prize, the New York Times has crafted a front page story about the growing problem of cellphone thefts that manages to shift the blame from the thieves who steal them to the carriers that subsidize them and the manufacturers that make them -- singling out Apple (AAPL) in particular.

The piece in Thursday's paper -- Cellphone Thefts Grow, but the Industry Looks the Other Way -- leads with an anecdote about an iPhone snatched in the Bronx and never recovered. Within five paragraphs the authors -- Brian X. Chen and Malia Wollan -- have taken readers to a meeting with Apple:

George Gascón, San Francisco's district attorney, says handset makers like Apple should be exploring new technologies that could help prevent theft. In March, he said, he met with an Apple executive, Michael Foulkes, who handles its government relations, to discuss how the company could improve its antitheft technology. But he left the meeting, he said, with no promise that Apple was working to do so.

He added, "Unlike other types of crimes, this is a crime that could be easily fixed with a technological solution."

A few problems with this thesis:

  • Apple does offer users a technological solution, as readers discover in the 14th paragraph. It's called Find My Phone, a free app that can locate a stolen phone and remotely erase its data as long as the phone is activated (more on that in a bit).
  • Google (GOOG) and Samsung and the other manufacturers of Android phones, we learn later, do not offer the equivalent of a Find My Android, yet executives at Google and Samsung are not interviewed for the piece.
  • The workaround that allows thieves to reactivate stolen phones -- hacking the phones' unique identifying code so that it can't be tracked -- is considered a "pro-privacy" measure that is defended by civil liberties groups such as the Electronic Frontier Foundation. We learn this fact -- which puts the "easy" technological solution the Times is calling for on a collision course with its core liberal beliefs --  five paragraphs from the end.

The Times piece doesn't say so, but the reason iPhones are favored by thieves is they hold their resale value better than competing smartphones.

The New York Post reported in February that Apple was working with a special team at the New York Police Department assigned to track down stolen iPhones. When the NYPD provides Apple with a unique identifier, the company tries to locate it -- something it can often do even if the owner hasn't installed Find My Phone.

Somehow that bit didn't make it into the Times' story.

See also: The Times takes two cracks at Apple in one day.

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About This Author
Philip Elmer-Dewitt
Philip Elmer-DeWitt
Editor, Apple 2.0, Fortune

Philip Elmer-DeWitt has been following Apple since 1982, first for Time Magazine, and now on the Web for Fortune.com.

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