CTIA, Carriers Finally Agree to a Smartphone Kill Switch

By Wayne Rash  |  Posted 2014-04-19

CTIA, Carriers Finally Agree to a Smartphone Kill Switch

In the same week that wireless carriers and the CTIA wireless association announced an agreement to support the inclusion of a smartphone "Kill Switch," a major consumer advocacy group reported that a record number of phones had been stolen the previous year. A number of critics have suggested that the CTIA agreement is too little, too late. It is, however, far better than nothing.

The agreement reached by phone manufacturers and carriers specifies that the smartphone software be able to remotely wipe the user's data in the event the device is lost or stolen. In addition, it must be able to render the device inoperable by unauthorized users, prevent reactivation and be able to be put back into operation by entering a password or PIN. Phones that had been killed would still be able to dial 911 for emergencies.

Equally important, the phone makers and carriers agreed that the kill switch apps would be developed independently to forestall attempts to create backdoors or other methods of defeating the locks provided by the software.

Once these apps reach the market, the "Kill Switch" will operate similarly to Apple's Find my iPhone app, which will show the phone's location remotely, sound an alarm, display a message on the screen and lock the phone. If needed, this app will wipe the device remotely, and it will prevent activation unless the correct PIN is entered on the screen.

Apple's solution, which seems to be the prototype of the software that the carriers and phone makers agreed on, will let the phone be restored and activated. The agreement announced by the CTIA includes a number of features that the software must have. In addition, the agreement requires that consumers get access to software at no charge.

The move by cell phone makers and carriers came after much pressure from consumers, state legislatures, attorneys general and other groups concerned about rising violence associated with thefts of smartphones.

In some places, including here in Washington, D.C., murders committed during cell phone thefts are all too frequent. Consumer Reports, meanwhile, issued a report saying that 3.1 million consumers had their phones stolen in 2013, nearly double the number having phones stolen in 2012.

Cell phone makers have been slow to respond to the issue. Apple was the first to offer a comprehensive antitheft solution when iOS 7 was released last year. But critics, including Consumer Reports, say that Apple's solution is insufficient because it's not pre-enabled. The way Apple's Find my iPhone software works is that you must let the iOS setup process turn it on while you're setting up the device, although you can also enable it later.

Once again, a number of critics have suggested that cell phone makers have little reason to make the activation of stolen phones difficult.


CTIA, Carriers Finally Agree to a Smartphone Kill Switch

The reason? Those stolen phones mean that their previous owners will simply go buy a new phone, helping to ensure a steady stream of replacement sales. Those same critics suggest that carriers make so much money on insurance plans that they don't want to hinder reactivation.

I find such suggestions cynical in the extreme, especially the one about the carriers. For one thing, it's hard to believe that carriers want their customers to suffer criminal violence. In addition, if you've seen how many people damage or destroy cell phones in the course of daily activity, you'd understand the need for such insurance.

The carriers I've talked to say they share that concern. "The safety and security of our customers remains a top priority," Verizon Wireless spokesperson Melanie Ortel told eWEEK. "We look forward to manufacturers and operating system providers introducing smartphones that include antitheft tools with the ability to remotely lock, wipe and render inoperable those that have been stolen, and we remain committed to making those tools available to our customers."

Sprint spokesperson Crystal Davis told eWEEK that her company welcomed the antitheft effort. "We look forward to having these solutions available, and educating our customers on their use and effectiveness," she said.

The biggest news is that device makers besides Apple are on board. It may be that these companies have finally developed some level of concern for their customers, but it's also possible that they're swayed by the CTIA approach as a way to avoid much more strict legislation by states and perhaps by the U.S. government as reflected in a bill, H.R. 4065, introduced in February 2014. That bill, which would amend the Communications Act of 1934, is not even remotely voluntary.

Either way you look at this, it's good news for your business. The epidemic of phone thefts, which the bill being considered puts at one-third of all crimes in the United States, is getting worse. While it's likely that even a federal law won't end it, making the process of reactivating a stolen phone significantly more difficult will take much of the profit out of it and hopefully dry up the demand for stolen phones.

Even if the motives of some device makers might be open to debate, the end result is positive. Making the sale of stolen smartphones much less likely will eventually reduce phone theft and the related violence when the thieves turn to other, more profitable enterprises. It won't end theft, of course, but it should reduce it—and that's good no matter how you look at it.


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