Stealing our “sanity”

[L]ast week, my iPhone was swiped from the shelf of a bookstore and swiftly transported to the city of Guelph on a coach bus in the pocket of an artist.

After making the disquieting realization that my recently purchased and still-glistening white iPhone 5C had gone missing somewhere in the bookstore, I had a minor panic attack and used a friend’s phone to dial my number. A man answered. He urged us to hurry to the coach terminal because his bus was about to leave. Baffled by the absurdity of the situation, we ran there as fast as we could but were unable to locate him in the throng of travellers and luggage. We called again.

“I’m just going to Guelph for a dinner, I’ll be back around midnight,” he said.

Inwardly reeling but trying my very best to remain composed, I scribbled down his name and number on a travel brochure and hung up.

I haven’t heard from him since. Google tells me he’s an artist with a lengthy CV, so I have a hunch that this entire scheme will become a multimedia art exhibit about the ravenous attachment of youth to modern technology, complete with my frantic emails printed and framed on the gallery walls and hysterical voicemail messages looping on the PA.

I suppose you can imagine why my ears perked up when I heard Toronto Police Chief Bill Blair talking about cell phone theft the next day.

“The fastest growing crime in Canada is the robbery of Apple products,” he said to a group of Ryerson students in the Ted Rogers building on Thursday. He was there as part of the Real World Speaker Series, answering questions on different matters in the realm of law and policing.

Blair said that while other crimes are on the decline, phone theft has spiked. A Toronto Star investigation published this February found that more than 30,000 cellphones have been reported stolen to Toronto police over a 10-year period, a 400 per cent increase from previous years.

This is an important issue for obvious reasons. In 2013, Google reported that 56 per cent of Canadians are smartphone users. We have grown so attached to our technology that to forget one’s device at home is a catastrophic event, resulting in sweaty palms and feelings of disconnection. To lose a phone altogether is extremely stressful, but even worse is the physical violence that often accompanies phone robbery.

A system launched by the Canadian Wireless Telecommunications Association in September 2013 allows customers to report their lost or stolen phones so that the device’s International Mobile Equipment Identity (IMEI) number can be added to a “blacklist.” The grimly named database indicates to all participating service providers which phones have been stolen, so anyone trying to re-activate a stolen device with a different provider will be refused.

Blair said although the blacklist has resulted in a decline in phone theft, it’s not quite effective enough. The next step is a “kill switch.” This technology is currently available to manufacturers, and would remotely wipe the stolen phone’s data and shut it off indefinitely. The companies would essentially be “turning a phone into a brick,” he said.

Sitting in my chair, I was screaming inside. If this were put into effect, there would no longer be motivation for the often-violent crime of phone theft. Never again would anyone feel compelled to snag a phone from a purse at a bar, a coffee table at a party, or a shelf in a bookstore.

“Why would it be worth it to stick a gun in someone’s face or to beat up a kid on a playground?” Blair said. “It’s the right thing to do. It will make schoolyards safer. It will make walking downtown safer.”

So why aren’t companies jumping on this no-brainer decision? Ahem. The cost. Cell companies charge hefty fees for the replacement of lost or stolen phones and rake in insurance money from customers who want extra security.

“What I want [mobile providers] to do is not in line with their business model,” Blair said. Does it make you uncomfortable that mobile providers are capitalizing on the misfortune of their clients? It should. This stinginess is shamelessly breaching on pure evil. People are getting punched in the streets for their phones and Bell, Rogers and Telus execs are sitting at their solid gold desks, counting their money and cackling loudly (that’s why your service sucks so much: the high frequencies of their screeching interfere with cell tower signals).

Who needs cell phones anyways? After this whole fiasco I’ve given up on advantageous devices and taken to the can-and-string method. Sure, call quality is subpar and it’s lacking both LTE wireless and a four-inch Retina display, but hey, no one’s stealing this baby.

Illustration by Dasha Zolota.