Push is on to get ‘kill switch’ into smartphones

Would kill switch help fight crime?
Would kill switch help fight crime?

Everyone wants a smartphone, especially muggers.

Smartphone thefts now account for 30 to 40 percent of all robberies nationwide, according to the Secure Our Smartphones (S.O.S.) Initiative, a coalition of police, prosecutors, lawmakers and consumer advocates. The group claims about 1.6 million people were attacked for their phones in 2012.

Law enforcement believes technology exists—the so-called kill switch—to stop this epidemic of crime by removing the economic incentive for stealing these expensive phones.

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If activated, the kill switch would permanently lock the phone, making it inoperable on any network anywhere in the world.

Phone manufacturers and wireless carriers at odds

Apple now has the "Activation Lock" feature on its new iOS 7 operating system. And Samsung has developed kill switch technology for Android phones. But so far, the option has not been deployed and critics blame the nation's wireless carriers for blocking it.

New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, co-chair of the S.O.S. Initiative, called it "disturbing" that the nation's leading smartphone carriers knowingly dismissed technology that could save lives. He's suggested they might not want a kill switch because they receive so much money from companies that sell phone insurance.

"My office will determine whether these companies allowed their business relationships to influence their ability to take immediate action against theft," Schneiderman said in a news release.

Last June, S.O.S. called on wireless carriers and phone manufacturers to "put public safety before corporate profits" by implementing this kill switch technology on all new phones within a year.

Mark Leno, a California state senator from San Francisco, refuses to wait any longer. The Democrat plans to introduce a bill in the next few weeks that would require a kill switch in all new smartphones sold in California.

"It is time to act on this serious public safety threat to our communities," Leno said. "Criminals know there is a very valuable device on most people walking down the street. To address these crimes, we have to take some bold action and that's what this bill would do."

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Leno wants the kill switch to be something that's already part of every new phone, not something you have to download, even if it's free. For this to be a deterrent, he said, criminals must know every new phone has a kill switch.

San Francisco District Attorney George Gascon, a founding member of the S.O.S. Initiative, supports the Leno bill. He believes this could prompt the industry to come up with a solution before it is forced to do something.

"If the industry doesn't move ahead, the manufacturers and carriers who are refusing to work on this technological solution, then we will have a legislative process they will have to deal with," Gascon said.

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What have the wireless carriers done?

CTIA speaks for the wireless industry. Michael Altschul, CTIA's senior vice president and general counsel, said its member companies have moved "as quickly as possible" to solve the theft problem.

In a statement to CNBC, Altschul said they are working to develop a "proactive, multifaceted approach of databases, technology, consumer education and legislation and international partnerships to remove the aftermarket for stolen phones."

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For example, there are now databases that blacklist stolen smartphones so they cannot be reactivated again in the U.S. CTIA also supports a bill in Congress from Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., that would impose tough penalties on those who steal or illegally modify mobile devices.

Here's what the big four wireless companies have to say:

  • T-Mobile is exploring tools and technologies to end the risk of device theft, including a kill switch option.
  • Sprint said "numerous concerns and technical details" need to be reviewed before a kill switch could be preloaded on to devices. One of those concerns is that a kill switch could be "exploited by hackers or terrorists."
  • AT&T did not respond directly, referring us to the industry association.
  • Verizon seems to be the most amenable to this technology. The company told us it "supports" a free kill switch application for Android devices.

"Once a manufacturer provides us an Android 'kill switch' that is free to consumers we will work to provide it to our customers," wrote Verizon spokesman Scott Charleston.

Tyler Shields, an expert on mobile security at Forrester Research, said phone carriers are attempting to balance security against customer convenience.

"The wireless carriers are trying to defend their ability to have the ultimate best customer experience without having to generally put in too much security," Shields said.

After all, we buy these cool phones for the bells and whistles, not security.

Where do we go from here?

Things seem to be progressing, even if that's a bit slower than some would like. But there are many important issues that still need to be decided:

Can the solution be software-based?

Tom Kemp, CEO of Centrify, a software and cloud security provider, believes most software-based kill switches have limitations because criminals can find a way around them.

"If you really want the full solution, it needs to be some sort of hardware chip that completely bricks the phone and some genius needs to figure out the right way to do that," Kemp said.

Should the kill switch permanently destroy the phone?

Someone who loses a phone and uses the kill switch would need to buy a new one. On the other hand, if that phone is not permanently bricked, it could be shipped overseas and activated there—making the crime profitable.

—By CNBC contributor Herb Weisbaum. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter @TheConsumerman or visit The ConsumerMan website.