Moscow’s plan to scan for stolen cellphones panned by S.F. official


Moscow authorities are developing a system to track mobile devices in transit stations to help them quickly nab cellphone thieves, according to a report in a Russian newspaper.

The program, which has raised numerous privacy concerns, highlights the growing focus on finding ways to curb the rise in cellphone thefts. But San Francisco Dist. Atty. George Gascon, a leading advocate for more anti-theft features on smartphones, said not to expect the Russian-style surveillance to come to his city anytime soon.

“We are looking for solutions that don’t require law enforcement to be as involved,” he said in an interview. “The most effective tool is a deterrence feature that makes the phone unmarketable once stolen.”


Moscow police official Andrey Mokhov told Izvestia newspaper that a device would be able to read SIM cards within a roughly 16-foot range. The scanner would be located near security cameras, allowing police to see who’s near the phone when a stolen SIM is logged.

The key to the whole program would be transit riders quickly reporting their devices as stolen. Mokhov noted that the first 20 minutes or so are crucial to recovering a stolen phone. Security experts told Izvestia that the police may have ulterior motives because the scanning systems seem too expensive to solely focus on cellphone thieves.

In the U.S., law enforcement have used devices known as Stingrays to create mini-cellphone networks and track suspects through their phones. This can be faster than going to a real cellphone operator and asking for a suspect’s location data. And it works with all phones, not just ones that use SIM cards. Many Verizon phones, for example, lack SIM cards.

Instead, Gascon and other officials in the U.S. have been pushing cellphone manufacturers to install “kill switches.” It would be a feature that could allow a victim to remotely prevent anyone from using the stolen or lost device ever again.

Gascon said that Apple and Samsung are on track to independently unveil some sort of kill switch by the end of the year. Microsoft and Google, however, still need to step up, he said.

“The kill switch is the technological solution that we see as the most viable to reduce the market value of the phone,” Gascon said.


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