Tide Turns in Favor of Crime-Fighting Smartphone Kill Switches

In the wake of overwhelming evidence that the kill switch Apple introduced in iOS 7 last year has reduced iPhone thefts, Google and Microsoft have agreed to follow suit.

San Francisco District Attorney George Gascon and New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, who have spearheaded the battle to implement smartphone kill switches, last week announced that the next versions of Android and Windows Phone will include a kill switch.

Crimes related to iPhones — robberies, muggings and theft, often involving violence against the victims — were reaching epidemic proportions both in the United States and abroad, leading Gascon, Schneiderman and the mayor of London to set up the Secure Our Smartphones (S.O.S.) Initiative with the participation of law enforcement agencies.

Robberies and grand larcenies involving Apple products fell 19 percent and 29 percent respectively year over year in New York City from January to May, while the same crimes involving Samsung smartphones, which did not have a kill switch until April, increased by more than 40 percent, according to a report the Initiative released last week.

Don’t expect to see the kill switch on every new smartphone out there yet, though.

“We’ll probably see kill switch-enabled devices by 2016 at the earliest,” Ramon Llamas, a senior analyst at IDC, told TechNewsWorld.

“Carriers have already solidified what their 2015 lineup will look like. Then there’s the question of how quickly you can implement the kill switch in the OS.”

Sorry Seems to Be the Hardest Word

Wireless carriers and manufacturers fought the idea of a kill switch tooth and nail until giving in to unrelenting pressure from Gascon and Schneiderman.

CTIA, the Wireless Association, which represents carriers, wrote the U.S. Federal Communications Commission in June, arguing that kill switches would brick mobile devices, making them impossible to reactivate or reuse.

CTIA also argued that hackers could spoof a kill command, disabling entire groups of mobile devices owned by an organization such as the U.S. Department of Defense or a law enforcement agency.

Samsung proposed in November that it preload Lojack for Android onto all its phones sold in the United States, but wireless carriers rejected the idea, Gascon told TechNewsWorld at the time.

In response to the pressure for a kill switch, CTIA set up a database designed to prevent stolen phones from being activated, although it worked only for 4G/LTE devices. Gascon dismissed it as a smoke screen, noting that a similar database in the UK was not effective.

CTIA also offered consumers apps for download, which could remotely erase, track and lock stolen devices.

In April, however, carriers dropped their opposition to kill switches, with the CTIA announcing a Smartphone Anti-Theft Voluntary Commitment, under which members pledged to implement kill switches on an opt-in basis.

Why the Industry Hates Kill Switches

Implementing the kill switch “was never a technology problem,” said Carl Howe, a vice president of research at the Yankee Group, pointing out that Apple, BlackBerry and others have been able to wipe devices remotely for years.

“Carriers saw a nice revenue stream from phone insurance and replacement phones, and they didn’t want to incur the coordination efforts and costs in implementing industry-wide kill switches without some revenue to go with,” Howe continued.

“Microsoft and Google were simply waiting to see which way the wind blew before they got on board,” Howe said.

It’s not likely that implementing kill switches will hurt the industry through a loss of income from device insurance, however.

“My guess is that [carriers will] now introduce support for [anti-theft measures] under new insurance plans,” Howe predicted.

Turning to the Law

Meanwhile, S.O.S., Schneiderman and Gascon have been working with lawmakers to push legislation to deter smartphone-related crimes.

S.O.S. is working with Rep. Jose Serrano, D-N.Y., and Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn.

Serrano earlier this year introduced the Smartphone Theft Prevention Act, H.R. 4065, in the House of Representatives. Klobuchar teamed up with other senators to introduce legislation requiring a smartphone kill switch.

Also in February, Democratic Sen. Mark Leno introduced bill SB 962 in the California legislature. That bill, which seeks to prohibit sales of smartphones not pre-equipped with theft-deterring technology from July 2015, is due for a second committee hearing.

Is Legislation Overkill?

In light of the latest news, is it necessary to pursue legislative measures?

“The Secure Our Smartphones report elevates the need for [Leno’s] bill,” Alex Bastian, a spokesperson for the San Francisco district attorney’s office, told TechNewsWorld. “It’s important to ensure that a universal system is implemented.”

Currently, there is debate over whether to offer an opt-in or an opt-out solution, Bastian said.

“The proposed solutions by Microsoft and Google are opt-in,” Bastian pointed out. “Opt-out is a better option, because it guarantees a universal system where all phones have a technological solution activated.”

Richard Adhikari

Richard Adhikari has written about high-tech for leading industry publications since the 1990s and wonders where it's all leading to. Will implanted RFID chips in humans be the Mark of the Beast? Will nanotech solve our coming food crisis? Does Sturgeon's Law still hold true? You can connect with Richard on Google+.

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