As iPhone Thefts Drop, “Kill Switch” Pressure Rises for Wireless Industry

With evidence of a decline in iPhone thefts after Apple introduced a "kill switch" on its devices, industry efforts to voluntarily introduce the anti-theft mechanism are beginning to bear fruit—with Google and Microsoft recently stepping up to the plate. But the possibility of legislative or regulatory mandates on the issue lingers.

The wireless industry has had a tough relationship with the “kill switch,” a security mechanism meant to deter the theft of mobile devices by allowing them to be disabled remotely.

The industry, through its trade group, CTIA: The Wireless Association, has dragged its feet on the technology in the past, but there’s growing evidence that the strategy works.

That evidence comes in the form of the iPhone, which includes a “kill switch” option by default (a feature, launched with iOS7 last September that Apple calls “Activation Lock“) and has seen a dramatic decrease in thefts in three major cities in recent months.

In New York, thefts of the device were down 19 percent during the first five months of 2014; San Francisco has experienced a 38 percent drop in iPhone thefts over a six-month period since the release of iOS7; and London has seen a 24 percent drop over the same period.

Meanwhile, thefts of Samsung phones increased significantly over the same period. (The Korean tech giant introduced such a switch on its phone in April—and only on Verizon.)

“These statistics validate what we always knew to be true, that a technological solution has the potential to end the victimization of wireless consumers everywhere,” San Francisco District Attorney George Gascon said in an interview with IDG News Service.

Phone Makers Step up

While CTIA has led industry efforts to introduce a voluntary kill switch, it has opposed a mandatory one, partly because of technical and security risks [PDF] that it says would arise if kill switches were required on every mobile device.

“Where mobile devices are permanently disabled by malicious use of a ‘kill switch,’ the safety of subscribers may be jeopardized as they will be unable to make emergency calls,” the group wrote in a policy statement.

But the tide appears to be turning in favor of the kill switch. Last week, Google and Microsoft announced they would begin including the functionality in upcoming versions of their mobile operating systems.

Microsoft’s vice president of U.S. government affairs, Fred Humphries, said the company had signed on to CTIA’s Smartphone Anti-Theft Voluntary Commitment in April and will provide the functionality for its devices before CTIA’s goal of July 2015.

“With these additional features, we’re hopeful that technology—as part of a broader strategy—can help to further reduce incentives for criminals to steal smartphones in the first place,” he wrote in a blog post.

But Is It Enough?

While the moves by Google and Microsoft suggest a proactive industry approach, they may not be enough to stop legislation at the state and federal levels. Federal Communications Commission Chairman Tom Wheeler—who formerly led CTIA and has pressed the association on the related issue of phone unlocking in recent months—stated at a meeting last week that the commission will offer recommendations on the kill switch issue by the end of the year.

Meanwhile, members of Congress, including Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), have continued to push for a legislative solution.

“We’re never going to get to the end of incentives to steal unless the thieves know they’re stealing a brick,” said Klobuchar (who introduced a kill switch bill in January) at the FCC meeting, according to Bloomberg.

(Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images/Thinkstock)

Ernie Smith

By Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is a former senior editor for Associations Now. MORE

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