Smartphone 'kill switches' could save owners $2.6B a year—no wonder carriers hate the idea

Smartphone 'kill switches' could save owners $2.6B a year—no wonder carriers hate the idea

Summary: While the phone makers can afford the small financial hit to their overall annual profits, the carriers can't, legislators and regulators believe.

TOPICS: Security
(Image: ZDNet/CBS Interactive)

With more than 145 million US smartphone owners, and while that figure rises every month, so is the growing epidemic of device thefts.

According to William Duckworth, associate professor of statistics, data science, and analytics at Creighton University, adding anti-theft technology in modern smartphones—such as remote "kill-switches"—could save device owners up to $2.6 billion a year.

Duckworth said that based on his survey of 1,200 smartphone owners, 83 percent of smartphone owners believe a kill-switch would reduce overall device theft. He also estimated that Americans spend about $580 million replacing stolen phones each year, and $4.8 billion on device insurance.

It's a problem that Members of Congress and US state legislators have been scratching their heads over for more than a year-and-a-half. While the mobile phone makers are showing signs of compromise, the wider efforts are reportedly being hampered by a collective pushback from the cellular industry.

New York State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman and San Francisco District Attorney George Gascon met with the four largest smartphone makers—Apple, Google and Motorola, Samsung and Microsoft—in July 2013 to discuss plans to include such security features.

Two months later, Apple fired off the security starting pistol by including Activation Lock, a feature that locks down iPhones and iPads if they are lost or stolen.

Google and Microsoft in the past year also added anti-theft technology to their mobile software in efforts to cut down on device thefts. Google's Android software and Microsoft's Windows Phone perform many of the same functions as Apple's new security feature.

But Apple, Google, and Microsoft, which generate billions in device sales every year, can afford to compromise, by taking a small annual financial ding if it means they are satisfying the hunger for their customers' security satisfaction and frustrated legislators.

When CNN previously pressed the matter to US carriers, they declined to comment, instead citing comment from CTIA The Wireless Association, which said: "CTIA and its member companies worked hard over the last year to help law enforcement with its stolen phone problem."

The industry group is also pushing for stronger legal penalties for thieves, remote tracking and app-wiping, and education—even a global database of smartphones that could make it harder for a stolen phone to be reactivated.

But not a kill-switch.

Schneiderman said in late February: "Because the industry dragged its feet, Congress is poised to act on legislation that will put consumers ahead of profits." Lo and behold, Californian regulators in February stepped up their legislative efforts to bring "kill-switch" features as standard in mobile phones for any device sold after January 1, 2015, if passed.

Gascon followed in a Senate hearing in late March that the cellular industry resisted any such move in order to protect its profits.

But, Verizon's general counsel Randal Milch said at the hearing the cell giant was "actively engaging" with the community to encourage developers and manufacturers to bring forward solutions.

While the Californian bill would only affect consumers living in the state, regulators hope that it might spark a broader nationwide effort in order to prevent what appears to be a problem spiraling out of control.

Topic: Security

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  • A Kill Switch

    What could possibly go wrong ?
    Alan Smithie
    • Compared to the current joke?

      Not a lot.
      • In all possible ways

        **** the carriers.

        They are slow to issue updates, negotiate deals to limit device features available to their customers, refuse to return items, mis sell, and generally put customer service last.

        They could have established international imei block deals a decade ago for their customers. They just couldn't be bothered because as this article says crime is worth so much to them.

        Device locking is an internationally important issue to all device owners, and to be honest only manufacturers and regulations can be trusted. Carrier networks? No chance.
        • Replacement Cost

          Have you looked at the deductible the insurance carriers are charging for list/stolen devices?
          Kill ..... Sounds good but it's not going to change anything.
  • So, 83% of people

    think a kill switch will stop thefts, so that's good enough for congress. Because, after all, when you're buying votes, it's all about what people think, not what actually works.
    • Not "stop thefts" but "reduce thefts"

      In the same way locking your car doors reduces thefts. Not a panacea obviously but yes, it will help.
    • People love to fool themselves

      Is there any actual evidence to suggest that a kill switch will deter theft? There will always be a lag between the physical theft and the ability to flip the switch, even if the switch itself is 100% effective and irreversible (unlikely, in my opinion). During that time the thief can disable the switch. Or store the phone in a signal-shielding bag and do it at their leisure.

      It's a global problem, and until a phone stolen in San Francisco can't be activated in Bangladesh it'll remain a global problem.
      • the value is if it renders the phone useless to the thief

        This is the value of the kill switch. there are instances of people surrounding a person and demand their phone. You give it up or be beat up, so you give it up. The value to the thief isn't the short time it can be used but the ability to sell it so it can be cleaned and sold as a device. If the lock renders it useless to anybody there is no value in stealing the phone.
    • Buying votes?

      Last I checked, this was a democracy. In a democracy, the people decide what they want and (ideally) the legislators listen and do something about it. So, democracy is working. If they were buying votes I would expect some money to change hands.
  • Already available

    If your phone is lost / stolen you can call your carrier and the device will be flagged in their system and unable to be activated.

    I'm against this legislation as it will put a huge damper on used device sales and malicious tagging of devices "stolen".

    People get robbed all the time of various things of value. While I feel for their loss - I do not wish to live in a everything is inventoried and I have no privacy. It's a dangerous path to go down.
    • Agreed - used phone sales will become fraudulent

      If this is enacted, what would prevent someone from selling a phone on ebay, collecting the money, then reporting the phone as stolen while it's still in transit?
      • eBay protects the buyer

        Well I can tell you from experience both buying and selling all a buyer has to do is report the item as not received as advertised and eBay will refund the purchase price less shipping.

        I also can confirm that Verizon will block the device if it is lost to prevent it from connecting to their network. My kids have lost more than one phone and so far VzW has block all of the devices.

        Look at eBay what do you think all the bad ESB devices are from?

        Stealing a phone isn't has money making as you might think.
        Sing the Blues
      • how about ..

        Craigslist. phones are sold and traded all the time on craigslist. No one there like Ebay to offer buyer protection. Sadly there are people in this world how are just plain spiteful for no good reason. Nothing says funny to them like selling a phone to someone for $200 worth of hard earned money just to go home and kill the phone and laugh about it with friends while enjoying the cash
        Shane Hudson
        • What's the point?

          What would be the point? As a joke? There would be a trail that you actually sold the phone.
          • People...

            ... DO in fact do things like that on craigslist, yes, as a 'joke'. Promise to buy something through email, tell them to drive out to some distant place, then never respond to them again.

            I can see people selling and killing phones. Even if it's a stupid idea for several reasons, some people put more malice than forethought into their efforts to make a quick buck.
            luke mayson
          • mail fraud

            I suspect selling and killing a phone like that would make it felony mail fraud... with solid evidence because of the financial transaction, and the kill command transaction. High risk for a puny rewards.
      • No different than any other transaction on eBay, etc.

        What's to stop a seller from just sending a broken phone? Or a empty box? You always has the same trust issues of seller to buyer.

        If I were to buy a phone on eBay, the first thing I'd do is reset the device. If it still has the previous owner's account registered, you can't reset. So you contact them to get this fixed or you report the problem to eBay. Same as if they sent you a broken item.

        If you can do a reset, then you don't need to worry about the former owner bricking it - they can't.
        • ofcourse they can brick it

          every phone have abn IMEI or an eqvevalent
          this is unique to the phone and you can not reset it.
          the kill switch will target the IMEI not the owner info. just like today you call your company to black-list the device so the phone can not be used on the network.

          with new system they will just add the mesage that if this particular device ever connectes to the network kill it.
          • Not likely

            Apple's current implementation is how I describe. This provides an effective kill switch without the fear that someone could maliciously brick your phone as you describe. Any method of bricking which just requires the IMEI is ripe for abuse. I don't know of anyone that is seriously proposing such a simple mechanism, especially when more effective methods currently exist.
      • How is that different then a laptop sale on ebay?

        what would prevent someone from selling a broken laptop on ebay, collecting the money, then saying the system must have been "damaged" while still in transit?