Smartphone 'kill switch' a step closer

2014-04-16 12:00
Google's Android operating system will reach on billion devices. (Duncan Alfreds, News24)

Google's Android operating system will reach on billion devices. (Duncan Alfreds, News24)

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San Francisco - A trade group for wireless providers said on Tuesday that the biggest mobile device manufacturers and carriers will soon put anti-theft tools on the gadgets to try to deter rampant smartphone theft.

CTIA-The Wireless Association announced that under a "Smartphone Anti-Theft Voluntary Commitment", the companies including Apple, Samsung Electronics, Verizon Wireless, AT&T, US Cellular, Sprint and T-Mobile US have agreed to provide a free preloaded or downloadable anti-theft tool on smartphones sold in the US after July 2015.

Owners' options will include remotely removing a smartphone's data and preventing reactivation if a phone is stolen or lost, the association said.

It appears the wireless industry has somewhat reversed course as law enforcement and elected officials in the US demand that manufacturers implement a "kill switch" to combat surging smartphone theft across the country.

Industry officials have previously said putting a permanent kill switch on phones has serious risks, including the potential that hackers could activate it.

Anti-theft features

"We appreciate the commitment made by these companies to protect wireless users in the event their smartphones are lost or stolen," CTIA CEO Steve Largent said in a written statement.

"This flexibility provides consumers with access to the best features and apps that fit their unique needs while protecting their smartphones and the valuable information they contain. At the same time, it's important different technologies are available so that a 'trap door' isn't created that could be exploited by hackers and criminals."

The wireless industry's announcement comes nearly two weeks after Samsung announced that it had added two anti-theft features, "Find My Mobile" and "Reactivation Lock" to its recently released Galaxy S5 smartphone.

Apple created a similar "Activation Lock" feature for the iPhone in 2013 and has offered a free tool called "Find My iPhone".

Almost one in three robberies in the US involve phone theft, according to the Federal Communications Commission. Lost and stolen mobile devices - mostly smartphones - cost consumers more than $30bn in 2012, the agency said in a study.

Earlier this month, California legislators introduced a bill that, if passed, would require that mobile devices sold in or shipped to the state be equipped with the anti-theft devices starting next year - a move that could be the first of its kind in the US. Similar legislation is being considered in New York, Illinois and Minnesota, and bills have been introduced in both houses of Congress.

San Francisco District Attorney George Gascon and New York State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, who have given the manufacturers a June deadline to find solutions to curb smartphone theft, said in a joint statement Tuesday that while CTIA's plan is "a welcomed step", it still falls short of effectively ending smartphone theft because the measures will rely on consumers to seek out and turn on the technology.

'Losing strategy'

"This approach is a losing strategy, and that's why this commitment falls short of what American wireless consumers need to effectively end the epidemic of smartphone theft," Gascon added.

But Jeff Kagan, a long-time tech analyst in Atlanta, said that the wireless industry's commitment may be the closest to solving the smartphone theft problem. He believes the industry's commitment occurred because they saw that government is in the process of making sweeping changes.

"I'm sure there will be a lot of back and forth, but this is the next natural step," Kagan said. "I don't think the wireless industry would've done this if there wasn't pressure from lawmakers and the public to come up with some solutions. Sometimes it takes a nudge."

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