Is it time for a smartphone kill switch?

Joseph Waring

Is it time for a smartphone kill switch?

January 06, 2014

Kudos to the California state senior who plans to introduce a bill this month that will require phone makers to install a true “kill switch” on smartphones, which would block stolen phones from bing reactivated and make them less valuable to thieves.

The comes a months after the top four US cellcos and CTIA rejected a proposal by Samsung to install Absolute LoJack anti-theft software, arguing that “it isn't the answer because it could allow a hacker to disable someone's phone”.

This is an obvious case of the telcos putting their collective heads in the sand on a $30 billion problem. The FCC says more than 30% of robberies in the US involve phone theft. In San Francisco, that figure is closer to 50%. Last year 121 million handsets were stolen, according to IDC.

San Francisco’s district attorney, New York’s attorney general and other law enforcement officials have been calling for handset makers to install a built-in anti-theft mechanism to combat rising smartphone thefts.

But their push has been thwarted by the telcos. According an August email from a senior Samsung executive to a software developer, Samsung had pre-installed kill switch software in some smartphones ready for shipment, but carriers ordered their removal as a standard feature, CTV News reported.

Apple introduced the “activation lock” with iOS 7 in the fall, which some security experts say is the first kill switch that meets law enforcement's desire to protect iPhone users - and they suggest other smartphone manufacturers should do the same.

The question is will it satisfy the big four carriers, the CTIA and GSM? I guess that depends on how big the threat is of hackers actually being able to disable handsets with a kill switch.

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Joseph Waring
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