Smartphone Kill Switch: Not So Fast

“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 o...
Smartphone Kill Switch: Not So Fast
Written by Mike Tuttle
  • “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

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