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Carriers Buck Against Smartphone Kill Switch

Carriers Buck Against Smartphone Kill Switch
By Jennifer LeClaire

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The kill switch for smartphones as advocated by the New York attorney general and the San Francisco district attorney is overkill as there is already a database for stolen smartphones. And it works. All the big carriers in the U.S. are participating. It’s easier to create that database than to create 25 different kill switches, said analyst Roger Entner.

In June, law enforcement authorities started calling on the smartphone industry to adopt technologies that would deter theft by squeezing the market for selling stolen devices. Now, the industry is pushing back.

Here’s the back story: New York State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman and San Francisco District Attorney George Gascon announced a nationwide Secure Our Smartphones Initiative last summer that aims to see smartphone makers add a kill switch to mobile devices during the summer. Law enforcement announced plans to work with device manufacturers to make a "kill switch," or equally effective deterrent technology, a standard feature of their products.

There’s good reason for concern. According to Consumer Reports, 30 percent to 40 percent of all robberies reported nationwide are for thieves stealing cell phones. In 2012, 1.6 million Americans were victimized for their smartphones. A Harris poll of phone owners found that nearly 10 percent said their phones 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.

Killing Kill Switch Momentum

The CTIA, the wireless industry trade group that represents the carriers, has been against the idea since it was announced. The group emphatically stated that a “kill switch isn’t the answer.” But Gascon forged ahead anyway, and the New York Times is reporting that he’s trying to get Samsung on board.

The district attorney wants the electronics giant to preload software on its phones that would require approval from carriers that service the phones. But Gascon told the NYT that wireless carriers, like AT&T, Sprint, Verizon and T-Mobile, are not on board with the idea. And he’s not happy about it.

“Corporate profits cannot be allowed to guide decisions that have life-or-death consequences,” Gascon told the paper. “This solution has the potential to safeguard Samsung customers, but these e-mails suggest the carriers rejected it so they can continue to make money hand over fist on insurance premiums.”

Kill Switch Overkill?

We caught up with Roger Entner, principal analyst at Recon Analytics, to get his thoughts on the debate. He told us there’s a better way to keep smartphones safe than a kill switch.

“The kill switch is overkill as there exists already a database for stolen devices. It works. All the big carriers in the U.S. are participating and more international carriers are participating,” Entner said. “It’s easier to create that database than to [create] 25 different kill switches. The coordination effort with 20 or 30 different handsets is too complex.”

Here’s how it database works: Every device has a unique identifier. Every device that is stolen can be reported and the unique identifier entered into the database. The phone can no longer be activated. Essentially, this serves as a kill switch, Entner said.

“Thieves typically don’t go overseas with stolen devices,” he said. “It only makes sense to bring them overseas in massive quantities. And you can’t steal that many that quickly.”

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