Apple Partly to Blame for Murdered Young Woman Whose iPhone Was Stolen, MSNBC Hints

Smartphone makers like Apple are partially to blame for violent muggings and the murder of at least one teenage girl young woman. While not explicitly stated on air, that was the logical implication of a segment of today's NewsNation program on MSNBC, guest-anchored by Craig Melvin and featuring Daily Beast special correspondent Michael Daly.

"If you're walking around with a smartphone in your pocket, then you're walking bait for thieves in this country who last year zoned in on the smartphones like never before," Melvin noted as he opened the segment, adding:

It's a crime that often turns violent and that is the case for Megan Boken, who was talking with her mom on her iPhone when two teenagers shot and killed her for that iPhone back in 2012. Boken's father is now lobbying for a fix that he says could have saved Megan's life: mandatory kill switches on all cell phones, rendering them totally inactive once they're stolen, in other words, useless to thieves.

Top cops in cities like New York and L.A. have called for the same, but many of the cell phone companies so far have resisted.

At that point, Melvin introduced Daly and began by noting that while Apple and other smartphone makers have developed kill switches for their smartphones, but you typically have to opt-in to the program.

Daly answered that that was, according to advocates like Mr. Boken, the problem: most folks don't, and so thieves figure that if "only one of of 10 does it, it's still worth stealing."

At no point did either Daly or Melvin consider the notion that a government regulation mandating pre-installed kill switches was an infringement on the individual's liberty, on his or her choice to, for whatever reason, not use a kill switch. 

Instead, Melvin wondered if corporate greed was to blame for industry reticence to make a kill switch something that is automatic rather than requires an opt-in:


Last year, more than 3 million cell phones were stolen, marking some 30 percent of all robberies according to research. But the phone industry, as we understand it, makes about $30 billion a year alone just replacing stolen and lost phones. Is it corporate greed here? I mean, is that part of what's holding back cell phone makers?

Daly didn't ascribe that motive to smartphone makers himself, but noted that NYPD Commissioner Bill Bratton had earlier used the term "corporate greed" to explain the opposition to regulation mandating kill switches.

The Daily Beast writer also noted that Apple seems to have softened if not reversed it's stance on the issue because they don't want to be in the "untenable position for them to be in" when you have "some kid killed over a cell phone and there's technology to prevent that."

Megan Boken's murder by a violent thug is a horrible tragedy, of course, but violent muggers will irrationally murder their victims over all manner of consumer goods, including pricey sneakers or expensive watches. Indeed, Boken's killer, Keith Esters, reportedly confessed in his guilty plea that he was not interested in snatching Boken's iPhone so much as in making off with cash and other property she had with her in her car.

Melvin would have better served his viewers had he include that perspective in the segment or at least played devil's advocate by posing that to Daly. The MSNBC anchor additionally could have explored the objective that makers of cell phones have raised that a mandatory kill switch could be a hacker's delight, posing all kinds of avenues to exploit the feature for financial gain and/or to cause chaos.

From a November 21, 2013 article at PCWorld.com (emphasis mine):

In one scenario, groups of mobile phones can be permanently disabled by sending multiple messages, such as by incrementing the MSISDN (the telephone number) or IMSI (the unique identity of the customer) or the IMEI (the equipment identifier), CTIA said in the filing. Subscribers will not even be able to make emergency calls, it added.

"This risk of Denial of Service (DoS) is far too large and is the reason the operator community has always maintained that control of operation (and denial of service) be done in the network and not in the mobile device," CTIA wrote in the June filing.

If a phone is permanently disabled, it could also result in losses to consumers as the device would be unusable if later recovered, CTIA said.

These are potentially nasty drawbacks to a kill switch, if exploited by a hacker, that are no less real than the potential of being beaten up or killed for doing nothing more than walking around with a smartphone. 

Corrected from earlier: Ms. Boken was age 23 when she was murdered, not a teenager. Apologies for the error.

Ken Shepherd
Ken Shepherd
Ken Shepherd is the Managing Editor for NewsBusters