Corporations generally avoid a policy that is morally preferable but costs more money. [Even going “green” or selling “organic” is usually not undertaken without some sales or marketing advantage.]

            Electronic device theft-tracking and retrieval presents a corporate moral choice.[1] Download-dependent hardware such as the smart phone and the Amazon Kindle® need be registered with their manufacturer in order to function. When they are stolen, often their serial numbers are transferred to identifiable thieves or recipients of stolen property. Data and communications service providers know this; but they lack an economic incentive to “brick” or blacklist a device, or report a new user to authorities. From a profit-making standpoint, why should they? They can continue selling services for a stolen unit. This conundrum is a consumer rights problem begging for a solution.

            A voluntary solution is an optional fee at point of sale, maybe $10.00, in exchange for which a manufacturer would blacklist the device serial number or cooperate with prosecutors. The triggering event would be their receipt of a sales invoice along with a notarized theft report actually filed with the consumer’s local police. If a customer declined to pay the fee, then the seller’s conduct could remain what it is today; cooperate with a subpoena but ignore the victim.

            A statutory solution is Federal legislation. It would mandate the immediate forwarding of a sales receipt and a filed, notarized theft affidavit to law enforcement in the jurisdiction where the unit was re-registered.

            It is instructive to compare the corporate “conscience” of enterprises like Apple and Amazon towards their retail customers to the “moral” conduct of American manufacturers of munitions for export. In 2008, the seller in two-thirds of all foreign weapons sales in the World was an American company.[2] This arms trafficking is legal so long as the purchasers and those killed with the products are in foreign countries; and the weapons being sold are less lethal than the ones we use to defend ourselves. As with the overseas markets for our cigarettes, brisk sales are permitted to benefit an industry with impunity when the victims are not us.

          In the case of stolen traceable electronics, however, we are the victims. My opinion is that if manufacturers of smart phones and electronic book-readers fail to self-regulate by assisting consumers whose devices are stolen, Congress will do it for them.

[1]Gadget Makers Can ID Thieves. Just Don’t Ask.” By David Segal. © 2009 The New York Times, September 7, 2009, p. A1.

[2]Despite Slump, U.S. Role as Top Arms Supplier Grows,” by Thom Shanker. Id., p. A4.