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An Anti-Theft Kill Switch for Your Smartphone? Not so Fast, Say Carriers

November 19, 2013 - Written By Eric Abent

Given that smartphones often seem to be viewed as valuable targets by would-be thieves, we imagine at least a few consumers would say installing some kind of kill switch on these phones – which could allow theft victims to essentially brick their phones in the event it’s stolen – would be a good idea. California District Attorney George Gasc³n thinks the same thing, and he’s formed a coalition called Save Our Smartphones alongside New York District Attorney Eric T. Schneiderman. The coalition has been working with Samsung to implement a kill switch security feature on the company’s smartphones. However, according to The New York Times, Gasc³n’s anti-theft initiative has hit a pretty significant roadblock: US carriers.

Apparently, major US carriers including Verizon, AT&T, T-Mobile, and Sprint aren’t all that thrilled with the idea of a kill switch that can disable a phone remotely. This is a particularly troublesome development, considering manufacturers would need the go-ahead from these carriers before loading the anti-theft software on their devices. In reading correspondence between Samsung and the carriers in question, Gasc³n discovered that carriers aren’t keen on the idea of a kill switch because it would cut into the money made from insurance plans on smartphones.

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As it stands right now, you’re basically out of luck if your phone gets stolen and you don’t have an insurance plan that will provide a replacement either for free or for a discounted fee. We’ve all been through the experience of buying a new phone and being subsequently offered an insurance plan that comes straight from the carrier itself, and it now seems that these carriers don’t want to greenlight anything that could put profits from those insurance plans at risk. Instead, CTIA – a trade group that represents these carriers – suggests increased adoption of a stolen phone database, which acts as a blacklist for phones that have been reported stolen. The group also says a kill switch isn’t the answer, pointing out that hackers could use such a feature to turn the tables on consumers and remotely lock them out of their own phones.

The problem with the stolen phone database CTIA mentions is that it’s only being used nationwide at the moment, so if someone were to swipe a phone and then leave the US, the blacklist wouldn’t help very much. For its part, Samsung will continue to work with carriers to come up with some sort of anti-theft solution, with company spokeswoman Jessica Redman telling the Times, “We are working with the leaders of the Secure Our Smartphones (S.O.S.) Initiative to incorporate the perspective of law enforcement agencies. We will continue to work with them and our wireless carrier partners towards our common goal of stopping smartphone theft.” For now, though, it seems that attempts at implementing a kill switch feature will only be stonewalled by carriers.