Smartphone Kill Switches Coming, But Critics Cry Foul - InformationWeek

InformationWeek is part of the Informa Tech Division of Informa PLC

This site is operated by a business or businesses owned by Informa PLC and all copyright resides with them.Informa PLC's registered office is 5 Howick Place, London SW1P 1WG. Registered in England and Wales. Number 8860726.

Mobile // Mobile Devices
09:36 AM
Connect Directly

Smartphone Kill Switches Coming, But Critics Cry Foul

Smartphone makers and carriers agree to add optional kill switches to smartphones, but law enforcement officials say the anti-theft effort doesn't go far enough.

10 Ways To Fight Digital Theft & Fraud
10 Ways To Fight Digital Theft & Fraud
(Click image for larger view and slideshow.)

After a year of hectoring from law enforcement officials and the threat of state and federal laws mandating security measures, mobile phone makers and mobile service providers have agreed to add an optional kill switch to smartphones.

CTIA-The Wireless Association, a wireless communications trade group, said on Tuesday that smartphones manufactured after July 2015 for sale in the US will include "a baseline anti-theft tool" that is either preloaded or can be downloaded. The voluntary agreement also stipulates that mobile carriers will support the availability and use of this tool.

The anti-theft software will be capable of: remotely wiping data from the device in the event of loss or theft; rendering the smartphone inoperable to unauthorized users, except for emergency services calls and, if available, user-defined emergency phone numbers; preventing unauthorized reactivation "to the extent technologically feasible"; and restoring operability and user data if possible and desired by the authorized user.

[OS makers, mobile app developers, and device users all have a role in protecting smartphones. See Mobility: Who Bears The Brunt Of Data Security & Privacy.]

Many smartphones already include or can accommodate software that performs similar functions. CTIA described its commitment as a baseline for the industry that will be available at no cost to mobile customers. The organization noted that participating companies may elect to offer features and apps that go further, like an audible alarm or the ability to activate a smartphone camera and transmit the captured image. An Apple patent application contemplates the possibility of an attack detection mode for a future smartphone that could automatically summon aid when activated.


Participating companies include: Apple, Asurion, AT&T, Google, HTC, Huwei, Microsoft, Motorola Mobility, Nokia, Samsung, Sprint, T-Mobile, US Cellular, and Verizon.

New York attorney general Eric T. Schneiderman and San Francisco district attorney George Gascón, the two officials who have led the charge for improved mobile device security, welcomed CTIA's response but said it falls short of what's necessary to fight rampant cellphone theft.

"We strongly urge CTIA and its members to make their anti-theft features enabled by default on all devices, rather than relying on consumers to opt-in," said Schneiderman and Gascón in a joint statement. "The industry also has a responsibility to protect its consumers now and not wait until next year."

Between 30% and 40% of all robberies in major cities nationwide involve the theft of a mobile phone, according to the Federal Communications Commission, which put the annual cost of mobile theft at $30 billion in 2012. In some cities like San Francisco, the percentage of robberies involving mobile phones is said to be closer to 50%. Approximately 1.6 million Americans were affected by smartphone theft in 2012, according to Consumer Reports.

What do Uber, Bank of America, and Walgreens have to do with your mobile app strategy? Find out in the new Maximizing Mobility issue of InformationWeek Tech Digest.

Thomas Claburn has been writing about business and technology since 1996, for publications such as New Architect, PC Computing, InformationWeek, Salon, Wired, and Ziff Davis Smart Business. Before that, he worked in film and television, having earned a not particularly useful ... View Full Bio

We welcome your comments on this topic on our social media channels, or [contact us directly] with questions about the site.
Comment  | 
Print  | 
More Insights
Newest First  |  Oldest First  |  Threaded View
<<   <   Page 2 / 2
User Rank: Apprentice
4/16/2014 | 1:31:12 PM
Re: Phone Theft - NOT
Go be crazy somewhere else.
User Rank: Ninja
4/16/2014 | 1:06:56 PM
I'm sure determined thieves will find a way to bypass this feature. If the phone can be reactivated, then it can be done so by someone other than the manufacturer I'm sure. 

That said, it's good to see some thought is being put into protecting personal privacy - companies and governments haven't done much to value that lately. 
User Rank: Strategist
4/16/2014 | 12:45:38 PM
Phone Theft - NOT
The kill switch will NOT be used for cell phone theft (like that's what they care about).  It has a much larger purpose: to prevent American citizens from petitioning their government.  When the big protests begin the government will shut off the phones of the protesters and the media will barely say a thing.  It is all about the mafia staying in charge of the slaves.
User Rank: Apprentice
4/16/2014 | 12:43:44 PM
Re: This is bad. Very, very bad.
This is not about the govt being able to do this. This is about customers who own the phones being able to do it without having to pay extra to the carriers for the privilege of protecting their property. 
User Rank: Apprentice
4/16/2014 | 12:42:42 PM
Re: Parsing?
The reason that carriers are objecting is very simple - they offer this very service already but as an extra added fee every month. If customers are allowed to do this and to protect their own property in this way, carriers might lose up to $20/month in providing it. Simply put this is large companies more worried about profit than they are about customers.
Lorna Garey
Lorna Garey,
User Rank: Author
4/16/2014 | 10:42:40 AM
What does "preventing unauthorized reactivation "to the extent technologically feasible" mean exactly? Seems like a huge loophole. After all, this is the main thing that in theory will cut down on theft, that someone buying a stolen device won't be able to use it.
IW Pick
User Rank: Apprentice
4/16/2014 | 10:35:48 AM
Re: This is bad. Very, very bad.
Government is not gettting any ability here. This is a function that owner of the phone can deploy. It is a way overdue feature that cell phone companies were fighting against in order to sell more phones.
User Rank: Apprentice
4/16/2014 | 10:17:18 AM
This is bad. Very, very bad.
In an era where there are serious - and legitimate - concerns about government overreach and Orwellian invasion of privacy, giving the same Government the ability to just shut off individual communication mechanisms becomes a tool on the workbench of Totalitarianism. 

I'll skip the politcal paradigm nonsense and say that *any* Federal government - regardless of party - having this kind of control should be a serious concern for civil liberties of every US Citizen.
<<   <   Page 2 / 2
Study Proposes 5 Primary Traits of Innovation Leaders
Joao-Pierre S. Ruth, Senior Writer,  11/8/2019
Top-Paying U.S. Cities for Data Scientists and Data Analysts
Cynthia Harvey, Freelance Journalist, InformationWeek,  11/5/2019
10 Strategic Technology Trends for 2020
Jessica Davis, Senior Editor, Enterprise Apps,  11/1/2019
White Papers
Register for InformationWeek Newsletters
Current Issue
Getting Started With Emerging Technologies
Looking to help your enterprise IT team ease the stress of putting new/emerging technologies such as AI, machine learning and IoT to work for their organizations? There are a few ways to get off on the right foot. In this report we share some expert advice on how to approach some of these seemingly daunting tech challenges.
Flash Poll