Exclusive The Metropolitan Police has spent more than two years lobbying phone manufacturers and the government in a bid to introduce mandatory passwords on every new unit sold in Blighty, The Reg has learned.
Senior officers from the Met's National Mobile Phone Crime Unit (NMPCU) have met with firms including Apple and Samsung to discuss the new measure, which police see as a key way of tackling handset and identity theft. Cops want to see each phone sold with a password already in place, so that buyers are dissuaded from leaving their mobe unlocked.
Internal research conducted by the NMPCU suggests that up to 60 per cent of phones do not have a password, offering thieves access to a treasure trove of valuable personal information.
DCI Bob Mahoney heads up a team of two sergeants and 10 constables at the NMPCU, which works within the auspices of the Met Police, but has a national remit.
In an interview at the team's offices in West London, DCI Mahoney said he wanted to "target-harden" Blighty's mobile phones.
"We are trying to get [passwords] to be set as a default on new phones, so that when you purchase it you will physically have to switch the password off, rather than switch it on," he said.
"We have been talking to the industry and government. This is one of the main ideas among a range of measures we are trying to push to protect personal data.
"All of the industry has been engaged at all levels - and government too."
The talks have been underway for two years, he continued, and the idea has gained "a lot of traction".
"If you have to get into the phone to switch something on, our research indicates people are less likely to do it," he added. "The industry are very supportive."
An unlocked phone is worth far more to a crook than a safely guarded mobe with a tough-to-crack pincode.
"We have intelligence that shows a phone with personal information is worth more than other mobiles, because the thief can sell it on to anyone who can make use of that info," the DCI said.
"On an unlocked phone, you can find a person's home address, home telephone number, their partner's details, diary, Facebook and Twitter account. This allows thieves to know when a target is not going to be at home or perhaps use their details to set up banking loans. They could destroy a person's life."
Mobile phone theft is changing in Britain, particularly in the wake of Apple's Activation Lock, which put a massive dent in the popularity of iPhones among thieves. Although they are still the most in demand among the criminal fraternity, the number of fruity mobes nicked has halved in the past year, DCI Mahoney added.
Mobiles are often now sold on a global market, with stolen phones ending up on the other side of the world just a few days after being stolen, he continued.
One of the NMPCU's greatest achievements in the past year was the cracking of a "steam-in" gang, which would burst into mobile phone shops en masse and steal whatever they could find. DCI Mahoney said his force managed to find and cage more than 40 youngsters who took part in such crimes.
However, according to official Home Office figures handed to The Register, crime statistics for England and Wales show that in the 12 months ending March 2014, theft "from the person" fell by 10 per cent.
Crime Prevention Minister Norman Baker told us this proved "action to reduce crimes such as mobile phone theft is working".
“The mobile phone industry and police already have arrangements in place to block stolen phones, which stop them being re-used in this country and reduces their value. We have also launched an online advice service to help people make the most of their phone’s security feature," he said.
“But we recognise that more can be done and mobile phone technology is changing all the time, which is why we will continue to work with industry and the police to improve security.”
Cops are optimistic that measures such as Apple's Activation Lock, which can effectively brick a phone from afar, will contribute to a decline in mobile thefts.
We contacted Apple, which you might expect would respond to praise about its efforts to tackle crime. But it did not respond.
A Samsung spokesman did. “Samsung is pleased to be supporting the UK Government and Crime Prevention Committee in its goal to reduce the serious issue of mobile phone crime theft," he said.
"Samsung phones already have features such as ‘Find My Mobile’ which gives people control over how their devices are used if lost or stolen, as well as ‘Reactivation Lock’ on new mobile devices which prevents a reset of the device if it isn’t recovered. Samsung is working with the Home Office on an on-going basis with the aim of reducing mobile phone theft in the UK.” ®