Authorities Want Smartphone 'Kill Switch' To Fight Thefts
Law enforcement authorities are calling on the smartphone industry to adopt technologies that would deter theft by squeezing the market for selling stolen devices. New York State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman and San Francisco District Attorney George Gascon announced a nationwide Secure Our Smartphones Initiative that aims to see smartphone makers add a kill switch to mobile devices.
The initiative is a coalition of state attorneys general, district attorneys, major city police chiefs, state and city comptrollers, public safety activists and consumer advocates from around the country. The problem they are tackling is real and growing.
According to Consumer Reports, 30 percent to 40 percent of all robberies reported nationwide are cell phones being stolen. In 2012, 1.6 million Americans were victimized for their smartphones. A Harris poll of phone owners found that nearly 10 percent said their phone had been stolen at one point, and a recent study found that lost and stolen cell phones cost consumers more than $30 billion last year.
A Five-Pronged Strategy
"Smartphones have become a part of our everyday lives. Over half of the U.S. population owns a smartphone, creating an environment ripe for violent street crimes," Gascon said. "The cell phone industry cannot ignore that smartphone theft is a crime that can be fixed with a technological solution."
The Secure Our Smartphones Initiative will attempt to address this national epidemic by focusing on five key areas. The first is to analyze patterns, causes and trends behind the growing and increasingly violent problem of device theft. The initiative will also investigate the capability of manufacturers to develop technology that would deter theft, including a "kill switch" that would enable stolen devices to be permanently disabled, eliminating the economic incentives for would-be thieves.
The third prong in the strategy is to understand how the economics of device theft have affected decision-making by the smartphone industry. Law enforcement also plans to work with device manufacturers to make a "kill switch," or equally effective deterrent technology, a standard feature of their products. Finally, the group also plans to investigate impropriety on the part of manufacturers, raising public and shareholder awareness about industry practices in this area, and using all available tools to press for safety-oriented innovation and responsible corporate citizenship.
"The growing number of violent crimes and senseless deaths connected to smart phone thefts demonstrate just how serious a problem this is in our communities," said Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan. "We must stop these crimes, and it is imperative that manufacturers and wireless carriers are part of the solution."
Will Apple Resist?
Rob Enderle, principal analyst at the Enderle Group, said the security measure was a good move.
"Thieves can drop stolen phones off at a kiosk and get instant cash, a couple hundred dollars if it's an iPhone. If the phone is stolen, a kill switch would brick it and make it of no value," Enderle told us. "That would force these kiosk operators to take another path, and if the phone is valueless there's not much point in somebody mugging you to take it."
Of course, Enderle said going after the crooks that are paying money for stolen phones should be the first priority. Still, he's not expecting smartphone makers to put up much resistance to adding a kill switch because it won't cost much.
"Apple has had a bricking capability in the iPhone for some time. So from Apple's perspective -- and the iPhone is the device most often stolen -- it really isn't that much more cost," Enderle said. "It just uses a bricking function that up until now was preventing people from doing certain things with their phone and turning it into a mechanism to make it safer."