Update: Photos (above) are now surfacing of disabled phones stolen from Apple Stores by looters acting under the cover of protests at the killing of George Floyd. It is also reported that camera permission is enabled, suggesting that Apple would be able to remotely take photos from either front- or rear-facing cameras.

I’ve seen a couple of pieces recently on what appear to be increasingly frequent snatch-and-grab robberies of display devices from Apple Stores.

One thing stood out for me: neither author appeared aware of the security measures Apple takes to render stolen display devices useless. And if tech writers don’t know about them, it’s guaranteed that thieves don’t either …

For example, CNET referenced three such robberies this month alone.

On Monday, an Apple Store in Costa Mesa, California was robbed by a group of five people who snatched $29,000 worth of merchandise from display tables. Earlier this month, thieves stole over $27,000 in phones and computers in Fresno, California, and more than $19,000 worth of iPhones from the store in Huntington Station, New York.

The display tables in Apple’s stores enable customers to test out its products. But they also make it easy for ill-intentioned people to grab devices and make a quick escape.

Well, that’s true. But the thieves are going to be rather disappointed when they try to sell the devices, because they won’t work. We detailed back in 2016 some of the measures Apple takes to ensure that display devices are useless once removed from the store.

A source tells us that the current special OS images on demo devices include a software ‘kill switch’ which disables them when they go out of range of the store Wi-Fi. This means that Apple no longer has to use Find My iPhone to disable them manually […]

When removed from the Apple Store, a stolen iPhone can’t do anything but ring for Find My iPhone until the battery dies.

iPhones, iPads and Macs alike are all protected in this way. Once the device goes out of range of the store Wi-Fi, it is automatically bricked.

There’s something quite satisfying about the idea of these thieves thinking they’ve just snagged tens of thousands of dollars worth of equipment only to discover that what they actually have is a pile of junk. Or, at best, something they have to break for parts – an expertise they are unlikely to possess. But it would be far better to prevent the thefts in the first place, for two obvious reasons.

First, for anyone present in an Apple Store when one of these robberies takes place, it must be a pretty scary experience. A mob of people whose faces are covered rush in and grab everything they can, presumably not worrying about anyone they have to shove out of the way. Customers won’t know whether they are about to be assaulted, or have their own possessions stolen.

Second, even for those not present in the store, such robberies cause significant disruption. The store may need to be closed for a time while police carry out forensic investigations, and it will take Apple some time to sort out the mess and get replacement display devices up and running. So people may turn up hoping to try out a device, only to be disappointed.

For these reasons, I’d like to see Apple make efforts to publicize the fact that it has these protections in place, and there’s absolutely no point in stealing display devices. That would soon see an end to this type of robbery.

Of course, you could argue that this then tells thieves they need to target stock instead, but stock is much better protected in the case of expensive devices, being kept in a locked backroom. And the reason the snatch thefts are happening is because they allow thieves to be in and out within a minute or two. Trying to gain access to a locked room and load up with boxed devices is going to be a much slower – and therefore riskier – process.

I’m guessing thieves visit the stores beforehand to check the layout and plan their attacks, so a simple notice like this would probably be all the deterrent effect needed:

Display devices are automatically disabled when they leave the store.

I know Apple likes to keep a very laid-back feel, and to have its security as invisible as possible, but this seems to me a simple, non-aggressive measure that would prevent people being traumatized and inconvenienced.

What’s your view? As always, let us know in the comments.

Photo: AP. This comment piece was originally written in 2018.

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About the Author

Ben Lovejoy

Ben Lovejoy is a British technology writer and EU Editor for 9to5Mac. He’s known for his op-eds and diary pieces, exploring his experience of Apple products over time, for a more rounded review. He also writes fiction, with two technothriller novels, a couple of SF shorts and a rom-com!

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