CTIA, Carriers Finally Agree to a Smartphone Kill Switch

NEWS ANALYSIS: Phone makers and the wireless service providers will support long-awaited antitheft software for smartphones as smartphone thefts reach record levels.

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.

Wayne Rash

Wayne Rash

Wayne Rash is a freelance writer and editor with a 35 year history covering technology. He’s a frequent speaker on business, technology issues and enterprise computing. He covers Washington and...