Smartphone Kill Switch: Not So Fast

By: Mike Tuttle - November 19, 2013

“You’re a paperweight now.”

With more than 1.5 million smartphones stolen last year in America, we are learning the hard way that thieves will do almost anything to get their hands on our devices. Because of this, some have suggested the possibility of a “kill switch.”

George Gascon, San Francisco District Attorney, says that theft of smartphones is almost half of all of their city’s total robberies and thefts. “This is an area where a technological solution can render these phones basically worthless on the secondary market.”

New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman agrees. Though his city is experiencing a historic dip in crime levels, there is one exception: theft of mobile devices.

Gascon and Schneiderman are spearheading a campaign to get phone companies to better protect their customers: the Secure Our Smartphones Initiative.

But, according to CBS News, there has been some resistance coming from the five major U.S. carriers: AT&T, Verizon, T-Mobile, Sprint, and US Cellular. They simply refuse to sell phones with a built-in “kill switch.” Gascon thinks he knows why.

“We’re talking about a $60-billion-a-year industry, and about a half of that seems to be attached to the replacement of phones that are being stolen,” he said, referring to the anti-theft insurance and replacement phones that are sold by the phone companies. “So we’re talking about a lot of money here.”

Service providers, however, are starting to work on an alternative to the “kill switch.” The Wireless Association told CBS News: “CTIA and its member companies worked hard over the last year to help law enforcement with its stolen phone problem…” then added that “one of the components of the efforts was to create an integrated database designed to prevent stolen phones from being reactivated.”

Whether these “kill switch alternatives” will come with a price tag for the consumer is yet to be determined. Patrick Moorhead, an analyst with Moor Insights & Strategy, said, “If carriers are in fact rejecting ‘kill switches,’ they would be doing it so that they, themselves, can monetize the feature. Carriers make a lot of money on service and feature add-ons, and a kill switch could be lucrative business.”

Apple products were the most stolen devices in New York City and, because of that, they have already taken steps to prevent future thieves from grabbing for their brand first. Recent iOS versions have had a Find My iPhone feature as well as an Activation Lock.

Of course, with Apple it’s less complicated. They make both the phones and the operating systems.

“With Android, it’s a bunch of different phone makers. It’s a bunch of different companies, you’d really have to get to the level of Google who makes that operating system and have them build in the same kind of thing,” said John Miller, CBS News senior correspondent.

Apple, Miller says, is still the clear winner for now. “…with the Apple thing, you just say, through one device to another, ‘you’re a paperweight now.’ And look, in 1994, they broke into every car and stole every radio in New York. Until the car people and the radio people got together and they said, ‘If you take the radio out of a car, it’ll never work in another car,’ this chip doesn’t match that chip, they stopped stealing radios. Never happened again.”

In the meantime, we can only hope that the smartphone thieves of today are as dim as this guy:

image by: Thinkstock

Mike Tuttle

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Mike TuttleWriter. Google+ Writer for WebProNews.

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  • Really?

    A) This technology already exists within phones. I assure you of this. But it will never be implemented because of precisely what the gentleman above said. There is a lot of money in making people replace phones.

    B) In fact, the NSA can turn on your phone without the phone actually showing signs of it being on. They use what they call a Roving Bug to do this. In fact, this was reported by MSN. Go out to the net and search “10 ways the NSA spies on you” and you will see a short summary video that is about 3 minutes long.

    I was a technology consultant at AT&T, BellSouth, and Cingular. I assure you what I am saying is very accurate. Also, by the way, they just ruled that the collection of metadata by the NSA will be allowed to continue. Some people say that collecting metadata does not violate privacy and conversations are not being recorded. That is nonsense. They can track everything you do and everyone you talk to by metadata. In some ways, it is easier to link people via metadata.

    Bottom line is that you are being spied on 24/7. Better get used to it because this is just the beginning too. The American public has no idea what is coming down the pipe. None.

  • Susan

    The sad thing is all the valuable info that is stored in my phone such as photos and phone numbers that really are only important to me. It is sad we live in a world of theives.

  • Helen

    A good ap is They have a program for $2.99 a month that will wipe your phone if it gets lost or stolen (you need to activate it) and will lock your phone. You can also make it scream if it is lost or stolen. Yes, you will loose what’s on your phone, but no one else will be able to get at it. If you have things on your phone that you absolutely don’t want to loose then you should download them to your computer or print them out. They also have a free ap that will scan your phone for virus’s and you can beep your phone if you misplace it and cannot find it.

  • Joe

    iPhones already do this seamlessly.
    All you have to do is turn on find my iPhone. You can then track your phones location, AND if the phone is wiped, the theif CAN’T reset your phone unless they have your iCloud username AND password.