On iPod theft

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Bruce Schneier observes that iPod theft is a natural consequence of iPods:
"Rise in crime blamed on iPods", yells the front page of London's Metro. "Muggers targeting iPod users", says ITV. This is the reaction to the government's revelation that robberies across the UK have risen by 8 per cent in the last year, from 90,747 to 98,204. The Home Secretary, John Reid, attributes this to the irresistible lure of "young people carrying expensive goods, such as mobile phones and MP3 players". A separate British Crime Survey, however, suggests robbery has risen by 22 per cent, to 311,000.
This shouldn't come as a surprise, just as it wasn't a surprise in the 1990s when there was a wave of high-priced sneaker thefts. Or that there is also a wave of laptop thefts.

What to do about it? Basically, there's not much you can do except be careful. Muggings have long been a low-risk crime, so it makes sense that we're seeing an increase in them as the value of what people are carrying on their person goes up. And people carrying portable music players have an unmistakable indicator: those ubiquitous ear buds.

I'm not sure I necessarily believe that iPods are actually a causal factor in increases in robbery. If you look at the 2004/2005 police reporting data (in Crime in England and Wales 2004/2005) you'll see that there was a 12% drop in robbery between 2003/2004 and 2004/2005. 1 Since 2004/2005 was a fine year for iPod sales, I think it's making quite a speculative leap to say that iPods are responsible for an increase in robbery. That isn't to say that there aren't more iPod robberies, of course. As iPods get more popular, you'd expect that more robberies would involve them--but that's not the same thing at all.

I also don't agree that there's not much you can do. Indeed, there's a pretty obvious technical fix—the same one that has been applied to car radio theft—make a stolen iPod useless, or at least less useful. To a first order, iPods need to be used with iTunes, which means they're tied (and mostly mated) to a particular computer. Apple could easily arrange that new iPods had to be synched up every so often (2 weeks, a month, whatever) or it went catatonic. You'd need to disable refreshing the firmware (remember, the thieves want your iPod, not your copy of Tubular Bells) but that's no problem when you control the hardware platform. You'd also need some kind of "my computer exploded" reset procedure, but again that's fairly straightforward to do in a number of ways (keep that sticker that came on your iPod people).

And note that if you really hate this feature it needn't affect you: Apple could just as easily have a button in iTunes that unlocked the iPod permanently. As long as most people don't press that button, the expected value of a stolen iPod would start to decline fairly rapidly and it's at least possible that people would lose interest in stealing them. Come to think of it, though, I don't actually know if this kind of technical fix had any impact on car radio thefts. Anecdotally, it seems like I know people who have had their cars broken into and their radios not stolen—on the other hand, their CDs were stolen, so maybe I'm wrong about that whole Tubular Bells thing—but I don't have any actual hard data.

1. Note that the numbers in the report I'm citing don't quite match up with the numbers cited above, but they're within 5% so I imagine we're looking at different measurement methodologies

5 Comments

What I'd like is some way to lock an iPod with a PIN. Since it's a closed platform, if Apple doesn't do it, it will never happen, which I find most unfortunate (though on the other hand I don't know of any pure music player (versus a PDA with sound capabilities, or somesuch) that lets you run custom software).

I'd imagine one thing keeping them back from that idea is that people would set the PIN and then forget it, bumping up Apple's support costs, but perhaps it would allow a PIN reset/clear if plugged into a (pre-registered) computer running iTunes.

This wouldn't stop them from getting stolen, of course, but it could reduce the street value, and (over time) perhaps reduce the number of iPod-driven muggings (versus random muggings that happen to involve a stolen iPod). While a not-yet-catatonic iPod could quite easily be sold, one that was obviously locked out could not. Also, as I never used iTunes I would find a sync-or-die system fairly annoying, though I'm sure I'm in a very small minority there.

I thought about a PIN but rejected it on the grounds that it was a PITA :)

I too rarely use iTunes, so I would find sync-or-die annoying. My thought was that people like you or I could easily turn it off (or alternately, have it initiated the first time you use iTunes). Again, it's not required that everyone be running the lockout feature, merely that enough people are that it depresses the EV of stealing an iPod.

A PIN wouldn't work with an iPod Shuffle since it lack an input mechanism with which to enter said PIN...apparently neither Jack Lloyd nor EKR are aware of this.

Why do you say that? It's got buttons. Sure, it's
inconvenient, but so are the input codes (key turns, emergency brake, door handles, etc.) that people sometimes have to use on their cars.

In the iPod nanos and 5th gen iPods there actually is a pin for the screenlock... at least that is a start for the pin. :)

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