Pointing to study results that show an uptick in incidents of smart phone theft, FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler wrote to executives of the four national wireless carriers and to U.S.  Cellular to ask that anti-theft features be enabled in all smart phones sold by those carriers by March 2015.

Wheeler delivered the letters late last week in conjunction with the release of a 137-page report,  compiled by the FCC Technological Advisory Council (TAC) working group on mobile device theft, which concludes that at  least ten percent of all thefts and robberies committed on U.S. soil “are associated with the theft  of a mobile device.” The report also includes recommendations on actions the FCC, wireless carriers  and other parties should take in reducing mobile phone theft.

The TAC working group compiled its study from data supplied by 21 police jurisdictions that,  together, cover a population of 19.7 million nationwide. That data shows a theft rate of 368.9 per  100,000 people, which, according to the FCC, translates to one million smart phone thefts per year.  (Statistics cited by Consumer Reports, however, show a much higher annual theft rate of 3.1  million.) In the New York City market, larcenies (i.e., thefts) involving a smart phone increased  from 47% of all reported larcenies to 55% between 2010 and 2013. During the same time frame,  forcible robberies involving a smart phone increased from 40% to 46% of all robberies reported in  New York. Meanwhile, in San Francisco, “the majority (59 percent) of the approximately 4,000  robberies . . . in 2013 involved theft of a smart phone.” The TAC acknowledged, however, that the  theft rate depicted in its study “may be under reported,” as it noted the difficulties of obtaining  and analyzing “insufficient data to determine the extent and trend of criminal activity.”

Among other things, the TAC working group is recommending development of more efficient ways of  preventing stolen smart phones from accessing wireless networks and more widespread participation  of carriers and law enforcement agencies in a national database of stolen smart phones. Wireless  association CTIA and device manufacturers such as Apple and Microsoft have already committed to  incorporate “kill switches” and similar technologies in smart phones that enable subscribers to  wipe personal data off of their devices in the event of theft. Earlier this year, California  enacted legislation requiring all smart phones sold in that state to include kill switch technology  by July 2015, and most device manufacturers are expected to follow suit for smart phones sold  nationwide by next summer. Notwithstanding these measures, Wheeler urged the carriers to make  “lock-wipe-restore functionality operational by default on all devices . . . by the end of the  first quarter of 2015.”  The carriers have been asked to reply to Wheeler’s letter and outline  their plans for implementing TAC working group recommendations within 30 days.