Robbed at Gunpoint: #5

After tallying up the loss, I realized that in 60 seconds I lost more than $1500 worth of crap. Honestly. I had a high end PDA and 2 high end mp3 player/recorders. Then, I realized that I had also bought accessories for the PDA: a 1 gig memory card, a leather carrying case and an extended battery. I never realized that I had invested so much (and let me tell you: for the first time in a long time I finally feel that I am keeping tabs on my personal data better than ever). I also bought software specifically for the PDA (which should also be factored into the loss, although not for insurance purposes).

So we have people walking around with lots of small devices costing between $100 and $400, just ripe for the robber. If you must know the truth, these devices bring a trail of accessories which you have to lug with you if you’re on the road. People are becoming easy targets at the expense of insurance companies. Ipods are easy to snatch and easy to resell. How can we reduce the allure of stealing these kinds of portable devices?

Actually though, the crooks here cannot use my devices. They probably won’t be able to resell them for much at all. Why? The backpack contained the devices only but not the chargers. They would have to buy the chargers themselves to sell them. And my products are somewhat exotic; it would take some hunting and forethought to obtain the chargers. For this reason, the pawnshop or ebay will be unlikely to pay much. Without the battery, these devices are nothing.

Therein lies the protection. The battery charger can serve as a kind of “token” to authenticate the owner. Perhaps the purchaser will be able to create an encrypted code for the battery charger to work and only for the purchased device. Trust me, this idea is brilliant! So brilliant I won’t be surprised if Dell or Apple start offering such a feature soon. Ok, Cory Doctorow may scoff at the proprietary nature of the accessory (didn’t he have a beef with Lexmark?), but that’s a win-win here. Companies win by selling their own secure accessories; consumers win by lowering the attractiveness of stealing things like iPod. Insurance companies win too.

Reality dose here. First, any secure feature can be circumvented, and actually consumers may want circumvention hardware simply to undercut the primary vendor’s exclusive lock on the accessory (if it’s half the price, for example). Maybe consumers would view these restrictions as meddlesome. (The DCMA forbids backwards engineering, so such things are going to exist in the gray market).

Secondly, teenagers who steal don’t pick and choose what to steal. They steal whatever they can get their hands on, worrying about the functionality of it later. My thiefs wanted everything in my pocket and backpack, regardless of what they could sell it for. One wonders whether reducing the resellability of portable devices would also reduce stealing or simply reduce the number of items on ebay.

On the other hand, look at how credit card agencies protect themselves against theft easily and effectively. Individuals who steal wallets know that after a few hours the credit cards are going to be invalidated. The backpack retrieved out of the dumpster actually contained a number of credit cards which the thiefs didn’t bother to try using; when they saw that the main card stopped working, they just assumed that the others were cancelled as well (when in fact I had forgot to cancel some cards even after 20 hours). On the other hand, that is a good reason to kill a consumer or at keep him tied up in a corner for a day or so).