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US Carriers Nix Samsung's Smartphone Kill Switch

By Richard Adhikari
Nov 20, 2013 1:55 PM PT

Wireless carriers in the United States have rejected Samsung's proposal to preload theft deterrent software on all its phones sold in the country, San Francisco District Attorney George Gascón told TechNewsWorld.

US Carriers Nix Samsung's Smartphone Kill Switch

Samsung wanted to preload Lojack for Android, which could brick Samsung phones and thus eliminate their value in the secondary market, "but only if it was made standard on all devices," Gascón continued.

"We are evaluating what course of action will be necessary to pressure the wireless industry to prioritize the safety of their customers," he said.

Carriers Hate Kill Switches Selectively

CTIA-The Wireless Association in June outlined its opposition to kill switches in a report to the Federal Communications Commission.

A kill switch would brick a mobile device, making it impossible to subsequently be reactivate or reuse it, the association argued. Further, hackers could spoof a kill command, disabling groups of mobile devices such as those owned by the Department of Defense or law enforcement.

Preloading a kill switch on mobile devices would also increase the risk of denial-of-service attacks and make it easy to discover the kill command, the CTIA maintained.

However, Apple's iOS 7 operating system has a kill switch -- the Activation Lock -- that has drawn strong support from Gascón and law enforcement.

A flaw in Siri lets users bypass the screen lock.

It's possible that carriers don't object to iOS 7's Activation Lock because Apple controls the OS and the device, and because they regard the iPhone as a must-have product in their lineup.

The Wireless Industry's Defense

"CTIA and its member companies worked hard over the last year to help law enforcement with its stolen phone problem," Jamie Hastings, the organization's vice president, told TechNewsWorld.

These efforts include creating an integrated database designed to prevent stolen phones from being activated, which is scheduled for release Nov. 30.

However, the database works only for 4G/LTE devices.

"The database is a smoke screen," Gascón growled. "A similar database in the UK was not effective, and since it was implemented last year, the number of smartphone thefts has only gone up."

Further, it does not cover lost or stolen smartphones shipped abroad.

However, "as more countries and more carriers around the world participate in the database, criminals will have fewer outlets for their stolen devices," Hastings pointed out.

The CTIA also offers apps consumers can download to remotely erase, track and lock stolen devices.

Samsung Soldiers On

Samsung "takes the issue of smartphone theft very seriously," the company said in a statement provided to TechNewsWorld by Carrie Gaffney of its public relations agency MWW Group.

"We will continue to work with [the Secure Our Smartphones Initiative] and our wireless carrier partners towards our common goal of stopping smartphone theft."

The Siren Song of Cold Hard Cash

Emails between a Samsung executive and a software developer that Gascón reviewed indicate the carriers were concerned the kill switch would cut into profits from insurance they sell to cover lost or stolen smartphones, the district attorney told The New York Times.

I don't think the money from insurance programs is the sole or even the leading reason operators oppose [Samsung's proposal]," Michael Morgan, senior analyst at ABI Research, told TechNewsWorld. "Insurance programs run from (US)$5 to $10 a month."

Carriers wouldn't offer and promote protective cases and scratch protectors if they were so concerned about eking out insurance profits, he reasoned.

"Why have operators sought to offer ruggedized phones?" Morgan added.

Still, the wireless industry's rejection of Samsung's proposal will reduce consumers' protection if their Samsung device should be stolen, he conceded.

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