Kill Switch Necessary to Cut Smartphone Thefts, 31 State AGs Say

NEWS ANALYSIS: Attorneys general from 31 U.S. states issued a joint call for some form of "kill switch" that would render stolen smartphones useless as the best way to cut thefts.

The attorneys general from 31 states jointly sent a letter on Nov. 12 to the heads of four major smartphone manufacturers calling for the rapid implementation of a "kill switch" in their phones.

The letter went to the heads of Google, Microsoft, Motorola and Samsung. Apple was not included in the list because the company recently implemented a feature in the "Find my iPhone" app in iOS 7 that locks the device and requires a pass code to unlock it.

For other smartphones, the situation is somewhat less clear. BlackBerry includes a free application, "BlackBerry Protect," that allows the phone to be locked and wiped. But the phone can still be used once it's wiped by a thief for resale.

Likewise, Microsoft smartphones can be locked by a system administrator, but again they can be wiped and reused. Android phones have a variety of apps, some free and some not, that provide the same capability. But whether the phone delivered to a given user contains an app that can act as a kill switch depends on the carrier as much as anything.

However, the AGs are now jointly stating is that such a capability should be included as a default, and that a thief should not be able to defeat the locking capability and wipe the phone so that it could be resold. The goal is to dry up the secondary market in stolen phones, New York Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman said in a press release.

Unfortunately, the vast majority of smartphones don't really lock the device well enough to prevent future reuse. If the proper software is enabled, they do prevent thieves from getting to the personal information on the phone and the software may enable owners to remotely wipe the phone so that information contained on the phone is protected. But for this to work the software needs to be installed, enabled and someone needs to then go online and send the commands required to wipe the personal information from the phone and lock it.

The problem is that even if the phone is locked and wiped clean, a thief can still replace the SIM card (assuming the phone uses SIM cards) and return the phone to its factory settings, effectively turning it into a new phone. While it's theoretically possible for a carrier to disable a phone based on its serial number, carriers as a rule don't do that.

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...