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Empowering consumers in order to reduce mobile phone theft

5th Sep 2014

On 3rd September the Home Secretary announced that we will be publishing a joint BIT/Home Office analysis intended to better inform consumers about mobile phone theft and security. The analysis uses Metropolitan Police Service data to show how offenders disproportionately target certain phones; how these patterns are sensitive to security features in the phones themselves (as well as desirability, of course); and how users can alter their own behaviour to reduce risk of theft.

The work is partly inspired by recent behavioural research on privacy and security, and work by Jennifer Mailley and Graham Farrell, who first created a mobile phone theft ‘index’. It has also been influenced by the historic release of data on the relative theft rates of different cars, which meant that the ‘nickability’ of cars started to become a salient concern to consumers, alongside cars’ other features. This was subsequently seen by criminologists as being a key driver of the subsequent reduction in car thefts as it created a powerful incentive for manufacturers to use their skills to make cars harder to steal, such as through built in immobilisers. The key point is that manufacturers did most of the heavy lifting. The main thing consumers needed to do was show they cared about security in their marginal choices.

Today your mobile is far more than a phone. Increasingly, it is also your wallet and contains lots of personal data too. Hundreds of thousands are stolen every year, but consumers aren’t very attuned to the relative risk and security of different devices. Separate work by George Loewenstein, of Carnegie Mellon, shows that people don’t think much about security, unless they are primed to think about it. Similarly, you aren’t going to pay more for a more secure phone, or bother with its security features, if it doesn’t occur to you, or you’ve got no information to tell the difference between them. That’s the idea of the index, which we’ll be publishing soon.

As a mobile user, there are things you can do to reduce your risk – like don’t leave your phone out on the table in a bar (you wouldn’t leave your wallet there!) But the most powerful thing you can do, when you getting your new phone or contract is to ask about security. Once consumers start asking the question, those clever folks who make phones have got a reason to make their models a bit more secure than their rivals – but still easy to use.

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