Google, Microsoft Join Apple in Offering Life-Saving 'Kill Switch'

Google and Microsoft have confirmed new software features that will render stolen devices unusable. Since Apple did the same, iPhone thefts have fallen.

kill switch

Google and Microsoft plan to join Apple in incorporating a "kill switch" into their software designs. The feature, which can erase all personal information and render a phone unusable, is intended to deter smartphone thefts. According to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), 30 percent of robberies in major cities involve mobile devices.

iPhones running Apple's iOS 7, which was introduced last June, include a feature called Activation Lock that can wipe and disable a stolen iPhone.

"Effective theft deterrence requires a multi-pronged strategy that involves law enforcement efforts, consumer education, use of stolen phone databases and new technology features," Fred Humphries, vice president of U.S. Government Affairs for Microsoft, said in a June 19 blog post confirming Microsoft's follow-through on the CTIA Smartphone Anti-Theft Voluntary Commitment it signed in April.

Humphries said Microsoft will beat the Commitment's goal of July 2015 by extending the capabilities of the Find My Phone feature on Windows Phone devices to include remotely erasing personal data; rendering the phone inoperable by unauthorized users, except to call 911; the prevention of reactivation or setup of the phone without the owner's permission; and the restoration of user data (from the cloud) should the smartphone be recovered.

Google confirmed to Bloomberg, according to a June 19 report, that it will add a "factory reset protection solution" to the next version of Android.

The CTIA Commitment was part of a Secure Our Smartphones (SOS) initiative led by New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman.

Schneiderman, who announced the SOS initiative a year ago, standing beside a woman whose sister was murdered during a robbery of her phone, celebrated the SOS victories June 19, saying that such initiatives are working and saving lives.

"In #NYC, #Apple thefts dipped after #ActivationLock launch. For @SamsungMobile, which lacked #killswitch, theft rose," Schneiderman tweeted.

In a second tweet, he added that the same trends regarding Apple and Samsung devices were observed in San Francisco and London.

After the introduction of Activation Lock, thefts of iPhones fell by 19 percent in New York City, 25 percent in London and 38 percent in San Francisco, according to statistics released by the cities.

Kill switches have for years been a prevalent feature in enterprise devices, but the technology has been slow to arrive in the consumer realm.

"The mobile phone industry has resisted the 'kill switch,' arguing that a software remote-kill feature would be a target for hackers, but that's a specious argument since hackers would be more interested in breaking into a phone and stealing information, not killing it," Ken Hyers, director of Wireless Device Strategies for Strategy Analytics, told eWEEK.

"Critics argue that carriers don't want kill switches since it might cut into sales of stolen-phone insurance plans. Regardless, Apple has demonstrated that kill switches work and recent data show they do deter iCrime," he continued.

Young people have been particular targets of smartphone crime, Hyers added. "I'm glad that the kill switch is finally becoming available, even if it's taken the industry too long to implement."

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