Mobile Carriers Grapple With a “Kill Switch” Controversy

Mobile service providers and public officials are debating how best to address the widespread and growing problem of smartphone theft. While some police and local authorities want the phones to have a kill switch, the CTIA is pushing in another direction.

Mobile service providers and public officials are debating how best to address the growing problem of smartphone theft. While some police and local authorities want the phones to have a “kill switch,” the CTIA is pushing in another direction.

Among mobile carriers and cellphone manufacturers, the consensus for an anti-theft measure is far from absolute.

Samsung Electronics’ plan to preload the third-party Absolute LoJack application—a “kill switch” that would make a stolen phone unusable—on its models was recently rejected by several carriers, including AT&T, Verizon, Sprint, and T-Mobile.

According to CTIA: The Wireless Association, the industry’s worry is an important security-related one: A standard anti-theft mechanism would leave phones vulnerable to hacking—a particular concern for devices linked to government or law enforcement agencies.

But San Francisco District Attorney George Gascon, a leading voice on mobile device theft, believes a commercial factor is at play. In an interview with the Associated Press, Gascon suggested that the carriers’ chief concern about installing a kill switch is losing customers’ lucrative theft insurance premiums. “I’m incensed…. This is a solution that has the potential to end the victimization of their customers,” he told the wire service.

To be fair, commercial interests are at play on both sides: Absolute Software would likely have benefited significantly from having LoJack pre-installed on the devices. They’re not losing out entirely, though: While the software will not be a standard feature on Samsung phones, subscribers can pay $29.99 per year for the service on their own.

A National Database

Nearly a third of U.S. robberies involve phone theft, according to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). In San Francisco, that stat jumps to two-thirds, according to CNN.

“Just about every major city across the country has the same exact [mobile phone] crime dynamic. Those gadgets are valuable,” Chicago Police Chief Garry McCarthy told CBS News last year.

CTIA, the FCC, law enforcement agencies, and government officials partnered last year to create a national stolen-phone database to launch on Nov. 30. The effort, backed by Verizon, AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile, and other carriers, is projected to protect more than 90 percent of U.S. mobile customers by preventing reactivation of stolen phones, the trade group says [PDF]. The Canadian Wireless Telecommunications Association is developing a similar platform.

But the national database could end up having little effect, some in law enforcement say, because phones stolen in the U.S. often end up overseas.

Apple’s Alternative

While Samsung, a leading Android smartphone manufacturer, has struggled to come up with a solution, Apple has pleased public officials such as Gascon by offering up its own  idea.

The company’s activation lock, a standard feature of Apple’s iOS 7 software, requires an Apple ID and password to reactivate a lost or stolen iPhone. This prevents thieves from deactivating the built-in Find My iPhone application, as well as tampering with phone data. As CNN notes, Apple’s industry clout allowed it the freedom to implement its solution without carrier pushback.

“The activation lock addresses this issue without carriers having to do anything,” MobileIron strategist Ojas Rege told the Associated Press.

Even so, manufacturers may not be prioritizing the issue. “They’re driven by creating the next feature for their smartphones,” Rege said.

As mobile thefts continue to increase, questions remain for IT staffs: Will a national stolen-phone registry do the trick? And how should mobile carriers work to better protect the customers they serve?

What are your thoughts about a standardized “kill switch” or “activation lock”? Tell us in the comments.

Absolute LoJack, the third-party "kill switch" app Samsung wanted to pre-install on its devices. (press photo)

Emma Beck

By Emma Beck

Emma Beck is a contributor to Associations Now. MORE

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