Tech companies commit to offering a 'kill switch' for preventing phone theft

  • Article by: BRIAN X. CHEN , New York Times
  • Updated: April 15, 2014 - 10:43 PM

The software would allow users to lock down a stolen smartphone.

To combat phone theft, several lawmakers over the past year have put pressure on manufacturers and wireless carriers to include smarter anti-theft technology on smartphones. A group of tech and phone companies said Tuesday that they were on board with the idea.

CTIA, the industry trade group that represents the carriers, said over a dozen companies, including Apple, AT&T, Google, Samsung Electronics and Verizon Wireless, had committed to offering free anti-theft software for cellphones at the beginning of next year.

The software would allow consumers to lock down a phone after the device has been reported stolen and reactivate it only with the correct password or personal identification number. Lawmakers like George Gascón, San Francisco’s district attorney, have called this type of technology a “kill switch.”

Still, Gascón and Eric Schneiderman, New York’s attorney general, on Tuesday released a statement saying the trade group’s commitment was not a complete solution.

They said the issue that remained with the group’s proposal was that the kill-switch would not necessarily be enabled by default on the phone, meaning that criminals may still target smartphones in hopes that some consumers did not have the anti-theft technology turned on. Several anti-theft technologies already exist on the market that people can download.

In their statement, Gascón and Schneiderman said: “While CTIA’s decision to respond to our call for action by announcing a new voluntary commitment to make theft-deterrent features available on smartphones is a welcome step forward, it falls short of what is needed to effectively end the epidemic of smartphone theft.”

CTIA’s position is a shift, as it had initially opposed a so-called kill switch. In a filing to the Federal Communications Commission last year, the group said that a kill switch would pose risks, because hackers who took control of the feature could disable phones for customers, including the phones used by officials in the Defense Department and in law enforcement.

Steve Largent, chief executive of CTIA, said in his statement Tuesday that it was important to offer various anti-theft technologies so that hackers and criminals could not easily find a “trap door” to disable people’s phones.

“We appreciate the commitment made by these companies to protect wireless users in the event their smartphones are lost or stolen,” he said. “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.”

Some lawmakers are still pushing for a kill switch to be included on all smartphones. State Sen. Mark Leno of California introduced a bill that would require a kill switch for phones sold in California. That bill might be on the floor of the Senate for a vote as early as next week.

“The wireless industry today has taken an incremental yet inadequate step to address the epidemic of smartphone theft,” Leno said in a statement.

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