On June 13, reps from Apple, Google, Microsoft, and Samsung attended a behind-closed-doors meeting with New York’s Attorney General Erich Schneiderman and San Francisco District Attorney George Gascon to talk about their failure in addressing the rising epidemic of smartphone and tablet theft.
Phone theft in New York and various other cities in the United States has supposedly increased by over 40 percent since last year: that's around 1.6 million Americans in a 12-month period. These four companies represent 90 percent of the world's smartphone population, so it's easy to assume that they have some responsibility in asserting some kind of anti-theft tool.
"The theft of handheld devices is the fastest-growing street crime, and increasingly, incidents are turning violent,” Schneiderman said in a statement earlier this month. "It’s time for manufacturers to be as innovative in solving this problem as they have been in designing devices that have reshaped how we live.”
Here's the problem: smartphones are being stolen, then resold at half their listed price. Thus, not only would a stolen iPhone 5 16 GB model contain the user's personal information (pictures, email address, credit card number etc), but bring in a good $325, around half the $650 price tag, once it has been wiped clean and reverted to its out-of-the-box state. No one but the thief/reseller is getting that cash.
"This has become a national epidemic," Gascon said. "Unlike other types of crimes, smartphone theft can be eradicated with a simple technological solution."
The solution, it seems, is to install a "kill switch" that will allow a manufacturer, carrier, and possibly even the government to remotely lock, wipe and disable any smartphone or tablet. The device will be left totally useless, unable to be used on a new carrier and/or with a new SIM card. It might as well be bricked.
Samsung is reportedly one of the first to implement such a kill switch, and is supposedly gearing up to release a solution to smartphone owners as early as July 1. The news stems from Gascon who said the company disclosed its plans in the meeting, that the solution will render devices entirely inoperable, even if SIM cards are switched out or the firmware is hacked. Thus, these "bricked" devices will have no market value whatsoever.
The news follows Apple's announcement of an "activation lock" feature which will require a password to be entered before a stolen iPhone can be reactivated. Apple believes this solution is a "really powerful theft deterrent", but Gascon indicated that it's not enough – it doesn't undermine the value of the stolen device.
"We have good reason to believe it will probably not go as far as what we're talking about," he told reporters. "We want something that will completely disable the phone."
Schneiderman and Gascon want all new products produced by the first part of 2014 to have kill switches or comparable technology already installed. Failure to meet this goal could lead to subpoenas for investigating why these companies are reluctant to install antitheft measures.