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FCC panel issues recommendations on smartphone theft prevention, cites Apple's Activation Lock

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A U.S. Federal Communications Commission group tasked with developing government, industry and consumer recommendations to mitigate device theft issued a report on Thursday lauding Apple's iOS Activation Lock feature as model deterrent.

The FCC's Report of Technological Advisory Council (TAC) Subcommittee on Mobile Device Theft Prevention (MDTP) (PDF link) is a step toward developing possible solutions to stop smartphone theft in America, which the MDTP Working Group found to exceed well over one million handsets a year. Apple is a current TAC IV council member along with numerous tech companies and wireless carriers.

Much of the information disclosed in the MDTP report — at least concerning Apple — is not new and comes from the SOS initiative, an effort to thwart smartphone thefts on the part of law enforcement agencies in New York City, San Francisco and London. AppleInsider first reported SOS findings in June, and the FCC's report reprints the highlights (PDF link).

Six months after implementing Activation Lock in iOS 7, iPhone thefts in San Francisco dropped by 38 percent, while New York City saw robberies and grand larcenies involving iPhones fall a respective 19 percent and 29 percent, the SOS report found. In London, Apple product thefts were down by 24 percent. The statistics were cited by the MDTP group as an effective example of industry-sourced security technology alongside solutions from wireless carriers and other manufacturers.

Apple's Activation Lock was introduced as part of Find My iPhone in iOS 7. When switched on, the system requires the original Apple ID and password used to activate the device to turn off Find My iPhone, wipe the phone's data, or re-activate it after being deactivated.

As for moving forward with a cohesive national plan, the MDTP panel recommends the FCC "establish a common national framework for smartphone anti-theft measures and explore the basis for preemption." To achieve that goal, it is recommended that the FCC apply Part I of the CTIA "Smartphone Anti-Theft Voluntary Commitment," which Apple supports, and current California and Minnesota state laws as a basis for the framework.

It is also suggested that the FCC remain technology neutral in establishing a framework, leaving security solutions up to industry players so as not to stifle innovation. Other recommendations include creating databases of stolen device IMEIs, carrier-side prevention, adequate law enforcement practices and, for tech companies, ongoing research into anti-theft systems and consumer outreach.

The group could not conclusively say where stolen smartphones end up, but anecdotal evidence suggests at least a portion is being exported out of the country. As such, the report expressed the need for urgency in rolling out changes. According to The Wall Street Journal, FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler on Thursday said he plans to send out copies of the MDTP report to cellular carrier CEOs, expecting responses within 30 days as to how they plan to implement the commission's recommendations.