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A closer look at activation lock, Apple’s iOS 7 iPhone theft prevention system

Apple always touts the security inherent in the iOS platform, and uses that point to bludgeon the more open Android platform. While iOS does have a very well managed and safe software ecosystem, the one place Apple has fallen short is in the real world – Apple devices are common targets for muggers and thieves because of the high resale value. The anaemic feature set in Find My iPhone has never really prevented the theft of iDevices before, but that might change with iOS 7. It seems Find My iPhone finally has some teeth.

Starting with iOS 7, an iPhone is no longer an easy day’s work for a phone thief. The new activation lock feature of Find My iPhone can render a lost iPhone or iPad unusable if it looks like it isn’t coming home. So now, in addition to merely tracking the location of a lost phone, users have the option to nuke it from orbit permanently.

Remote wipe is nothing new – BlackBerry has been doing the same thing for nigh on a decade now. What makes Apple’s activation lock unique is that it ties in with the owner’s iCloud account. The original iCloud password will be required to make a wiped device functional again. Even if a thief manages to disable Find My iPhone or wipe the device on his or her own, activation lock renders it little more than a pretty paperweight.

To take things a step farther, a locked iPhone will still be able to display messages should it come into the possession of a more reputable party. You can hope against all odds that the device is returned, but at the same time know that your data is not compromised. Well, there’s also the satisfaction of knowing the thief isn’t seeing any benefit from inconveniencing you.

This feature isn’t just about protecting individual users and their data – it’s about setting a precedent. The epidemic of iPhone thefts has been on Apple’s radar for a long time, and this is Cupertino’s effort to put a stop to it. If stealing an iPhone almost always results in a locked and useless handset, thieves will eventually start looking for easier targets. Some of those Android phones are getting pretty nice, too.

Over in the US, even the authorities have been keeping an eye on the rates of iDevice theft. The NYPD launched a special task force to recover lost iPhones and iPads a few months ago. This is part of an initiative to track down caches of stolen property, which almost always include piles of Apple devices. Several attorneys general, including New York’s Eric T. Schneiderman and San Francisco District Attorney George Gascón, sounded notes of optimism when the activation lock feature was announced at WWDC on Monday.

Apple takes device security seriously to the point of hindering its own users. The long-term battle among Jailbreakers to defeat Apple’s draconian restrictions are legend on the Internet. But with activation lock we’re starting to see where Apple’s cautious approach is paying off. A jailbroken device may offer industrious thieves a way to bypass security measures like activation lock. This might be a solid argument against jailbreaking.

The improved security in iOS 7 isn’t just good for people who take their phones out when walking down less than salubrious city streets. It will act as a theft deterrent for all iDevice users.