Smartphone Kill Switch Debate Generates More Heat Than Light

NEWS ANALYSIS: Wireless companies are doing less than they should to curb mobile phone theft, but political grandstanding by state and district attorneys isn't helping much either.

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.

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...