U.S. News

05.08.14

Murdered for Her iPhone

Megan Boken was one of many slain by thieves going ‘Apple picking.’ But momentum is building to force manufacturers to install ‘kill switches’ that render stolen phones inoperable.

On Independence Day of 2005, Steve Jobs called a Brooklyn construction worker whose 15-year-old son had been stabbed to death by a thug robbing a friend’s iPod.

“I’m Steve Jobs,” the father of Christopher Rose remembers hearing when he answered.

“Oh, OK,” Errol Rose replied.

Rose works with concrete at the opposite end of the spectrum from digital. He only knew the name because somebody had called him earlier in the day saying Jobs wanted to make a condolence call.

“I’m sorry about what happened to your son,” Jobs now said. “What would you ask of me?”

The father could not think beyond having to bury his son, and there was nothing Jobs or anybody else could do about that. But the father was touched by how absolutely genuine Jobs seemed, pausing with each word, every syllable sounding as if it came from the heart.

And that was all the more remarkable because nobody could have rightly held Jobs responsible in any way for what had befallen young Christopher. Jobs could not be blamed for creating a remarkable device that was so cool every kid wanted one.

But Jobs was creating another device that would combine the magic of the iPod with the capabilities of cellphones such as the one on which the father now spoke to him. Jobs would add the ability to surf the Internet and take pictures and videos, all of it in one beautiful package that seemingly everyone on Earth would want.

Almost immediately, thieves prized the iPhone even more than the iPod or anything else. Other smartphones were targeted as they came on the market, but iPhones remained the most popular with robbers, who spoke of going “Apple picking.”

But unlike the iPods, there was a way to make iPhones undesirable to thieves. The manufacturers needed only to install a kind of “kill switch” by which the phone could be rendered useless and personal data erased if it were stolen.

But the cellphone manufacturers and the wireless companies did nothing. Had Jobs not seemed so genuine when he spoke to Christopher Rose’s father, it would be easy to conclude that he joined the other manufacturers and the wireless carriers in feeling there was simply too much money in replacing stolen phones.

“Corporate greed,” NYPD Commissioner Bill Bratton would later say when asked why the industry had not done something substantive about stolen cellphones.

Jobs must have had at least a modicum of decency, or he never would have called the Rose family in the first place. It is nice to imagine that if Jobs had not died of pancreatic cancer in 2011, he just might have been shocked to action after a series of murders involving cellphones.

The industry already had the blood of innocents on its hands.

These iVictims included Hwang Yang, a 26-year-old chef at the restaurant in the Museum of Modern Art in New York, who was murdered for his iPhone as he was returning home from work in April 2012. Yang was found still wearing his earphones. The killer left behind his wallet.

Four months later, 23-year-old Megan Boken was shot to death as she sat in her car in St. Louis by a robber intent on taking her iPhone, his second such theft that day. She was talking to her mother at the time. She had just bought the phone a month before, after turning in her BlackBerry.

“Because someone wanted to steal her brand new iPhone, Megan lost her life,” said her sister, Annie Palazzolo.

Had Jobs still been alive and had he been moved to call Boken’s family, he would have gotten an immediate answer to the question, “What would you ask of me?” The family would no doubt have said what they have been saying at meetings and press conferences and every other opportunity since the murder.

The family’s demand is simple as well as technologically feasible: Install “kill switches” in all smartphones so as to make them valueless to thieves and the booming black market they feed.

“We’ve got to shut it down,” says Paul Boken, the murdered woman’s father. “And start protecting people.”

He adds, “People lost their lives.”

After Megan Boken’s death, the same demand came from an ever increasing number of public officials, including then-NYPD Commissioner Raymond Kelly, Los Angeles Police Chief Charlie Beck, San Francisco Police Chief Greg Suhr, San Francisco District Attorney George Gascón, and New York State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman.

The manufacturers said it was up to the wireless companies, who said it was up to the manufacturers, who insisted it was not technologically possible. Never mind that Apple already had a “kill switch” by which is could remotely erase apps that it felt people should not have on their phones.

Meanwhile, the respective federal and local law enforcement agencies report that cellphones figured in more 30 percent of robberies nationwide, more than 40 percent in New York and Los Angeles, some 50 percent in San Francisco, and 75 percent in Oakland. The total number of stolen cell phones, as recently tallied by Consumer Reports, rose to 3.1 million in 2013, nearly double the year before. The Federal Communications Commission estimates that this $70 billion-a-year industry is now earning some $30 billion annually from stolen and lost phones, along with almost $8 billion in insurance against theft and loss.

“There’s a lot of money involved here,” Gascón noted. “About half of their industry is based on a business model that involves the consumer being hurt or victimized.”

Gascón made sure nobody forgot what was at stake.

“Megan Boken did not need to be killed for a cellphone,” Gascón said. “Unfortunately, Megan’s case is not unique.”

Gascón and the Boken family and the others of a pro “kill switch” group calling itself Secure Our Smartphones (SOS) kept pushing. And in June of last year, Apple announced that it would be adding a “kill switch” feature to future phones. Samsung followed with a similar pledge. The hitch with both companies was that the phone would not come with the “kill switch” installed. The consumer would have to “opt in.”

SOS contended that too many people would neglect to set up their “kill switch” and thieves would consider it worth playing the odds. The group applauded state Sen. Mark Leno of San Francisco when he introduced a bill early this year that would require that all cellphones be equipped with an activated “kill switch” that the consumer would need to opt out of to deactivate.

“The answer is truly what this legislation does—it makes the object not worth stealing,” Suhr said when the bill was announced

Some groups such as the Electronic Frontier Foundation that seek to safeguard civil liberties were concerned that “kill switches” might be abused by law enforcement. They pointed to a 2011 incident in which authorities sought to counter a protest by shutting down cellphone relay transmitters in the Bay Area’s BART transportation system. And, even though the “kill switch” would be thrown by the phone’s rightful owner and not by the police, suspicion about government surveillance is running so high amid all the NSA revelations that some private citizens might worry that the companies or the government would be able to to remotely disable their phones and erase their personal data.

But the major opposition came from CTIA, the association representing all major cellphone manufacturers and wireless carriers. An “opt in” bill seemed to be on the way into law in Minnesota, and there was other legislation pending in New York, but California was tech home turf. The group sought to preempt California Senate Bill 962 by announcing on April 15 a “Smartphone Anti-Theft Voluntary Commitment" that would guarantee an “opt in” “kill switch” for future cellphones.

"The safety and security of wireless users remain the wireless industry’s top priority," CTIA said with the straightest of faces when announcing the initiative.

By one count, 20 industry lobbyists were in the halls trying to scuttle SB 962 as it came to a vote nine days later. The measure was defeated by two votes, 17 yeas but 19 nays.

Leno immediately sought to have the Senate reconsider the measure, and it could come to a revote this week. He also entered into discussions with Apple about minor adjustments that might make the bill more acceptable or at least give the company a pretext for changing its position.

On Tuesday, Apple informed Leno that it was dropping its opposition to the bill. The most likely explanation is that the company realized that the advocates were unshakably determined and that there would only be more robberies and killings. The industry already had the blood of innocents on its hands.

“I think they just didn’t want to get in the way of this train,” said someone familiar with the discussions.

But it is still nice to imagine that the company was acting in the spirit that Jobs showed back in 2005, when he called the father of the murdered Christopher Rose and said, “What would you ask of me?”

What the father of the murdered Megan Boken would have asked of Jobs is what now might happen. All that needs to be done is a relatively simple change that could easily have been performed on the iPhone that the police returned to the Boken family when it was no longer needed as evidence in the case of a murder that did not have to happen.

The family keeps the phone in the box it came in when Megan bought it in the last month of a life that she should have been just beginning. The phone has the secret “kill switch” that Apple installed to protect its own interests but lacks the one that could have saved her life.

This iPhone remains Exhibit A of a kind of wrongdoing that would have seemed an impossible contradiction for the soft and gentle voice that came to Errol Rose nine years ago through a cellphone that worked well enough to convey compassion but is now so antiquated.

The fabulously profitable company that Jobs created did not reply to a request for comment.