Smartphone Kill Switch Debate Generates More Heat Than Light

By Wayne Rash  |  Posted 2013-11-24

Smartphone Kill Switch Debate Generates More Heat Than Light

The good news is that industry and public officials are paying attention to the serious problem of smartphone thefts. It's no exaggeration to say that people are getting injured and killed while smartphone makers and politicians dither about what can actually be done about it.

The Attorney General of New York Eric Schneiderman and the San Francisco District Attorney George Gascon have been making headlines as they pound their respective tables demanding a "kill switch" for smartphones as part of Secure our Smartphones initiative.

The wireless carriers, meanwhile, are also posturing, saying that kill switches themselves pose a security risk that could open the door to malicious use and they aren't really necessary anyway. The carriers have sought the relative safety of the CTIA Wireless Association trade group, which is pressing for a national serial number database that would keep people from activating stolen phones.

The attorneys general including Schneiderman are hailing the suggestion by Samsung that they include a "LoJack" software package, saying that it's the ultimate solution. Meanwhile, Gascon is demonizing the carriers for not agreeing with him and immediately acceding to his call for action.

The problem is that everyone involved is wrong in some way. The lawyers, apparently suffering from a weak grasp of the realities of mobile device use, are suggesting fixes that are impractical.

The carriers are trying to claim that a fix already exists. But the fact is, it's no big deal to create a kill switch that's safe, easy to implement and not subject to security issues. Perhaps more important, the assertion by the carriers that they won't allow such software to exist on their phones is clearly wrong because they already do. It's just not on most Android devices.

But perhaps more important, the wireless carriers aren't actually saying it's impossible, despite what you may read. I know this because I went out and asked them rather than relying on unsubstantiated claims by their lawyers. In fact, the carriers do want to see their stolen phones put out of service, they want their customers to be free from being killed by thieves, and they would be happy to implement a reliable kill switch if they were satisfied it wouldn't create other problems.

"We always want to help protect our customers and their information, and encourage them to take care of their phones," Verizon Wireless spokesperson Melanie Ortel told eWEEK. "We also offer My Mobile Recovery, which is the Find My Phone for Android."

Ortel said Verizon has been looking for a solution. "Verizon Wireless supports a free 'kill switch' application for Android devices," she explained.

Smartphone Kill Switch Debate Generates Far More Heat Than Light

"However, no manufacturer has yet made one available to us, and press reports to the contrary are inaccurate," Ortel said. "Once a manufacturer provides us with an Android 'kill switch' that is free to consumers, we'll work to provide it to our customers."

Other carriers take pretty much the same position. Sprint maintains a Stolen Phone Website that gives immediate information on what to do if a customer's phone is stolen, for example. "Our 'stolen phone' site explicitly recommends that customers utilize protection features on their devices," Sprint spokesperson Crystal Davis told eWEEK. These include "pass codes that can erase device information, implement a remote lock, and additional related products that are available in the Android, BlackBerry and Apple marketplace," Davis said.

AT&T spokesman Mark Siegel told eWEEK that the industry really needs tough penalties covering device theft and modifications to hide their electronic serial numbers. This would help dry up the market, Siegel said. He also noted that carriers as a group are on schedule to complete their stolen phone databases in 2013.

Over the long run, these measures being taken by the carriers will reduce the problem of mobile phone theft because they will eventually eliminate the market for stolen phones, at least in the United States.

But mobile device owners are being attacked, injured and killed today. The suggested steps don't really address that—except for one. Apple's Activation Lock is in place now, and all of the carriers that sell iPhones and iPads sell it with the devices because it's already installed and it already works to make devices running iOS7 unusable if they're reported to Apple as being stolen.

But there's still a problem. The one thing the AGs know because they're in touch with criminals on a regular basis is that you not only have to convince owners and carriers that the phones are protected, you have to convince the criminals. This means that until thieves find that they can't sell a mobile phone because it can't be activated, they're going to keep stealing them, even if that means killing the owner.

So ultimately there are two goals. The first goal, which is to protect owners against losing their information and perhaps finding their phone again, is well on its way to being met. But the second goal, bringing realization to the people who see your iPhone as a source of quick cash on the street that they won't be able to activate the phone, requires a significantly more forceful statement. A real kill switch like Apple's may be the only thing that will do that.

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