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The battle over a smartphone kill switch

Heather Kelly, CNN
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Wireless carriers are pushing back against kill switch features for smartphones
  • A kill switch could disable stolen devices, making them worthless and discouraging phone theft
  • Some say carriers don't want a switch because it would cut into money they make off insurance

(CNN) -- For victims of smartphone theft, the ultimate justice is hitting a button that disables the device, turning it into a worthless rectangular paperweight. More importantly, the ability to disable a stolen smartphone could reduce theft for all consumers, since the resale value of the devices would plummet.

Called a kill switch, this type of feature already exists and could be included on smartphones. It would be triggered by the phone's owner with his or her user name and password if the device goes missing or is stolen.

Major U.S. wireless carriers, though, have pushed back against the idea of a kill switch. They claim that the feature could be exploited by hackers and that, once triggered, it would be difficult to undo.

Proponents argue that the process is completely reversible, and that the real reason carriers don't want the feature is that they would lose money on insurance plans, reactivation of resold phones, and sales of replacement phones.

"I think that this is motivated by profit," said San Francisco district attorney George Gascon.

Along with New York attorney general Eric Schneiderman, Gascon heads up the Secure Our Smartphones Initiative, a coalition of law enforcement officials and other parties from across the U.S. The group is pushing smartphone makers and the wireless industry to take more actions to protect consumers from smartphone theft.

Smartphone theft has been on the rise across the United States in recent years, and in many cases it can turn violent. In San Francisco, 67% of robberies are related to mobile devices, according to the police department. Ten percent of phone owners have had a phone stolen, according to a Harris poll, and in 2012, 1.6 million Americans were victims of smartphone theft, according to Consumer Reports.

The Secure our Smartphones initiative has been working with Samsung to get a kill switch included on the South Korean company's handsets, an effort that recently hit a major obstacle.

"We have seen e-mails that indicate that the carriers refuse to allow Samsung to put a third-party solution in their phones," said Gascon, referring to e-mails between Samsung and a developer.

Theft, in its own way, is a moneymaker for wireless carriers. For example, for $7 a month, smartphone owners can get an insurance plan with their device purchased through AT&T that will cover theft, as well as loss and accidental damage.

Resold phones are profitable to carriers when they're reactivated by new owners, and consumers who don't have insurance will often pay full price for a new device through the carriers.

"We are working with the leaders of the Secure Our Smartphones (S.O.S.) Initiative to incorporate the perspective of law enforcement agencies. We will continue to work with them and our wireless carrier partners towards our common goal of stopping smartphone theft," said Samsung in a statement.

The major U.S. carriers declined to comment for this story, standing behind a statement from CTIA-The Wireless Association, an industry group that represents wireless companies.

"CTIA and its member companies worked hard over the last year to help law enforcement with its stolen phone problem," said CTIA Vice President Jamie Hastings in a statement. "The industry, with direction from the Federal Communications Commission, law enforcement officials from major cities and other policymakers worked collaboratively to develop a proactive, multifaceted approach to dry up the aftermarket for stolen phones."

The organization outlined the anti-theft actions it does support. One of its primary alternatives to a kill swtich is a global database of smartphones that would make it harder for a stolen device to be reactivated. But unless all the carriers around the world participate, thieves can continue to ship stolen devices to other countries and sell them there.

The CTIA is also pushing the use of remote tracking and wiping apps, educating owners on preventing theft, and asking for stronger legal penalties for smartphone thieves.

One company is powerful enough to add the feature without carrier approval: Apple. The company successfully introduced a kill-switch-like option called Activation Lock to iPhones and iPads with the release of its latest mobile operating system, iOS 7.

"Apple has been able to show the industry that this can be done," said Gascon.

Unlike makers of Android phones, Apple controls all aspects of its devices, including the hardware to the operating system. Because iPhones are so popular and profitable for carriers, Apple has been able to dictate what features are included on its devices. Apple is also leading the way on theft prevention because its devices are the most popular target for smartphone thieves.

Manufacturers like Samsung are navigating a more complicated system. The added kill-switch feature would be added by Samsung to the Google Android operating system already on the device. They need to sell those altered devices to carriers, which have the power to say no.

While law enforcement in the U.S. evaluates the next steps in the battle against smartphone theft, it can look outside the U.S. for inspiration. South Korea recently introduced an act that would require all domestic smartphone manufactures, including LG and Samsung, to include a kill switch feature on devices sold in the country.

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