Prosecutors seek 'kill switch' to prevent theft and 'Apple picking'

Prosecutors seek 'kill switch' to prevent theft and 'Apple picking'

Summary: U.S. prosectors are hoping that a "kill switch" function will deter the theft of mobile gadgets.

TOPICS: Smartphones, Legal
apple_picking_smartphone theft judges america kill switch

To try and stop the rising number of smartphone thefts, U.S. prosectors are trying to convince manufacturers to include a "kill switch" that will disable stolen mobile devices.

New York State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman and San Francisco District Attorney George Gascon said on Wednesday that they will meet on July 13 to meet with representatives of the four largest smartphone manufacturers to discuss the idea. The prosecutors intend to ask the firms to include a disability mechanism on future mobiles that will render the devices useless if taken -- which could eliminate the current incentives for theft and prevent smartphones being sold on to other users.

The Smartphone Summit is aimed at preventing the violence which can follow street crime to steal phones, known as "Apple picking." As mobile devices increase in value, U.S. police forces have seen a subsequent spike in the rates of violent theft.

In some recent examples of violent mobile device theft, on February 21, 2013, a 6 year old San Francisco boy was robbed of his mother’s iPhone, and in February 2013, three people were stabbed on a subway platform in Queens in a fight over an iPhone. Earlier this month, a woman was mugged at gunpoint in Crown Heights for her Android device. The prosecutors say that approximately 50 percent of all robberies in San Francisco involved a mobile device.

Although applications have been developed to keep track of stolen smartphones, both Gascón and Schneiderman have criticized the companies -- which have secured a majority marketshare -- for not tackling the issue sooner. On May 10, letters were sent to the Chief Executive Officers of Apple, Google/Motorola, Microsoft, and Samsung seeking information about the companies’ efforts to protect customers from "Apple-picking." These companies control over 90 percent of the market for mobile electronic devices. In response to those letters, all four tech giants agreed to attend the Smartphone Summit.

Representatives from Apple, Google/Motorola, Samsung and Microsoft will attend the meeting.

"The theft of handheld devices is the fastest-growing street crime, and increasingly, incidents are turning violent," said Attorney General Schneiderman. "It's time for manufacturers to be as innovative in solving this problem as they have been in designing devices that have reshaped how we live."

Topics: Smartphones, Legal

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  • Why can't

    they continue to use IMEI blocking? When I had my dumb phones, I could call up the operator and get the IMEI blocked, surely they just need to bring that back into operation?
  • The cellular network isn't the only way smartphones communicate

    A smartphone without cell service is basically a wifi 'terminal' of sorts that will still play music, surf the web, run apps, etc. I am sure what they are referring to is a remote bricking that will make the phone useless for all intents and purposes; probably making it boot to a picture of a do not enter sign or something like that.
  • Kill switch?

    Sure, theft is a problem, but the technology is already there to prevent use of a stolen smartphone. The IMEI number identifies each phone, and any carrier can just disable that IMEI number in their computer when it is reported stolen. They just don't WANT to since someone pays for the use of those phones.
  • Battery

    Wouldn't removal of the battery circumvent a "Kill Switch" and allow the syndicate (thugs have to sell to a more sophisticated group) to prepare the device for re-sale? Granted, I'm new to the show, but short of a Fereday Cage, there are simple ways to defeat the "Kill Switch," efforts that the syndicate can employ.
  • Blacklist the IMEI

    enough said
  • Why so drastic?

    Surely, it's only necessary to restrict the device to using contact lists and apps (and emergency services numbers) which are already stored on it, and deny resetting it or editing any data. Then if a lost device is later returned to its owner, it's still usable by them while they wait for the restrictions to be removed.
  • already there?

    For my Windows Phone, I can go to, and ring (even if it's on vibrate-only, handy for finding where the phone got misplaced at home), locate (on a map), lock, or erase my phone from that web site. I don't know if a thief could do a factory reset if the phone is locked and prevent me from doing these things, but otherwise that's way more capability than just a kill switch. I could even track down a thief if the phone is on.
  • Hard resets?

    The IMEI solution would seem to a good one for making a phone much less useful and less immediately valuable. I know on the iphones that I have owned if the phone still turns on you can do a hard reset just pressing the power and home buttons. It would be easy for me to wipe an iphone and reset it. Jailbreaking is also pretty easy, so I could even unlock most iphones too.

    I don't have enough experience with Android to know if this is possible on all devices, but I can do a similar thing on my Nexus 7. Frankly even that would not totally take away the incentive for theft because parts are still valuable. So a theft of a bricked phone that can be bricked may stop an easy resale, but for anyone with experience on ebay and a few small tools you could easily still make money selling parts (like a chop shop for cars).
  • Good Idea!

    Today's smart phones (like iPhone) have features that let you remotely (from another smart phone or web site) sound-off a misplaced phone in your home, send a "please return" message to the screen, or wipe all data. Even so, thieves know they can still reset and use, or sell, a stolen phone, and there is the incentive to steal it.

    With a remote kill switch, the phone becomes useless to anyone, except those who know how to "unkill" it. It becomes "dead". No access to data. No functionality at all. Just a paper weight.

    The only use for a dead smart phone, is to extort the owner to pay to have it returned. I like the idea in a big way.
  • A phone is more that just a phone

    Don't forget, the phones are worth quite a bit for parts alone so that may be the motive for some theft.
  • Perhaps...

    ...this feature can be a selling point.

    In this case, I think the market can decide what features should be included in mobile devices without public officials needing to make suggestions.
    John L. Ries
  • Anyone worried

    How that kind of power could be abused by our government? Something happens and the DOJ orders all US carries to kill switch all mobile devices until the SOMETHING is resolved.

    I'd never ask this - but recent event just have me worried about global ANYTHING the feds might be able to manipulate for their own devices.
  • The Imei isn't the answer,

    because anyone can ship a phone to another country.
  • Prosecutors seek 'kill switch' to prevent theft and 'Apple picking'

    incorporate the kill switch and apple sales will tank. part of the aura of apple products is the desire of the have nots to keep up with the joneses and those needs are partially fulfilled by these illegal activities. remove the fulfillment and that market segment will crash (and with it, apple's emerging market.) the downside of these illegal activities is the brazen attacks on owners of these sought after devices, that caused physical harm to the public (it was not like this before when even muggers had some compassion to the person's physical well being.) as for the capital expenditure, most if not all apple users, are capable of getting every iteration of their favorite product. so, money is no object - they don't care losing dated toys as long as they are not harmed. ... some might smirk at the above assertion, but the illegal arms trade is thriving in the same plain and simple value proposition. kind of try first (for less cash) and buy later at full price ...