Carriers Rejecting Plan To Add Smartphone Kill Switch

Back in June, San Francisco District Attorney George Gascón and New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman launched an initiative called Secure Our Smartphones, and a coalition of consumer advocates, police, prosecutors and other officials in an effort to put pressure on smartphone makers to stop smartphone theft and dry up the secondary market. One of the goals was the introduction of an industry-wide “kill switch” that would allow consumers to remotely render a stolen smartphone worthless.

Now five months later, the New York Times reports that wireless carriers are not keen with the idea. Gascón was reportedly working on a deal with Samsung Electronics to include antitheft software with its phones in the United States. Unfortunately, this software requires approval from the wireless carriers that service the phones: in this case, AT&T, Verizon Wireless, T-Mobile and Sprint. All four rejected the idea of kill switch software.

If fact, according to Gascón, the carriers were downright unwilling. He reportedly viewed emails that took place between a Samsung executive and a software developer that revealed the four carriers’ reluctance to allow the software. The emails suggested that the four were more concerned about the profits made through insurance programs that are purchased to cover lost or stolen phones.

"Corporate profits cannot be allowed to guide decisions that have life-or-death consequences," Gascón said. "This solution has the potential to safeguard Samsung customers, but these emails suggest the carriers rejected it so they can continue to make money hand over fist on insurance premiums."

Yet the CTIA, the industry trade group that represents the carriers, has a point: what if the kill switch is installed and a hacker gains control of the phone? They could disable the device and lock owners out, including law enforcement and officials in the Department of Defense. Even more, if the customer deactivated the phone and then later retrieved it, the phone cannot be deactivated.

In the case of Apple’s Activation Lock, that’s not entirely true: the customer can disable the phone if it’s been lost, and then reactivate it with the correct username and password if found. For Android Device Manager, users can remotely lock their smartphone or tablet with a new password, or remotely reset the device to the original factory settings. The latter doesn’t stop thieves from selling the device on a secondary market, but at least the user data is mostly erased.

The CTIA reportedly supports a nationwide database meant to deactivate phones that have been reported stolen. The group also supports a legislation by Senator Charles E. Schumer that proposes to make it a crime to modify smartphones to circumvent the stolen phone database. Meanwhile, Gascón is reportedly evaluation what action can be taken against the carriers refusing to cooperate with the kill switch initiative.

"We have repeatedly requested that the carriers take steps to protect their customers. We are now evaluating what course of action will be necessary to force them to prioritize the safety of their customers over additional money in their pockets," he said.

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  • I'm no lawyer... but it seems to me that carriers stonewalling a needed safety feature to protect profits are at risk of exposing themselves to legal expenses that could dwarf those protected profits. How many successful wrongful death lawsuits would it take for them to feel the pain? How many mothers crying and telling the jury "my son would be alive today if his phone had been worthless to thieves... and THEY (trembling finger point) decided that their profits were more important than my son's life". Penny wise pound foolish.
  • when will we strop this stupid carrier controlled oligopoly in the US?

    I'm not a big fan of big government, but there need to be some regulations on what the carriers can and can't do, as well as how much they should be allowed to charge us for data
  • instead of instituting a kill switch how about manufacturing a auto destruct function within the processor of the phone where once triggered it would literally render either the memory or specific section of the processor useless there by eliminating some one recovering or reusing the phone. make it to where it can be user implemented. only with specific passwords. kind of james bond but really it couldnt be to hard to implement something that would fuse or over volt a section of a processor or memory block.