Microsoft, Google announce progress against smartphone theft

Both Windows Phone and Android will include anti-theft features, including protection against factory reset.
Written by Larry Seltzer, Contributor
Image: CNET/CBS Interactive

Microsoft and Google announced on Thursday new features in their phone operating systems to combat smartphone theft.

Smartphone theft, known as "Apple picking" in some cases, has become a significant crime in some parts of the country. Law enforcement and prosecutors have been pressing the industry to institute a "kill switch" to disable stolen phones.

In response to the call, wireless industry group CTIA developed their Smartphone Anti-Theft Voluntary Commitment. Software and hardware companies that sign on commit to implementing a series of anti-theft features by July 2015:

  1. Remote wipe the authorized user's data (i.e., erase personal info that is added after purchase such as contacts, photos, emails, etc.) that is on the smartphone in the event it is lost or stolen.
  2. Render the smartphone inoperable to an unauthorized user (e.g., locking the smartphone so it cannot be used without a password or PIN), except in accordance with FCC rules for 911 emergency communications, and if available, emergency numbers programmed by the authorized user (e.g., "phone home").
  3. Prevent reactivation without authorized user's permission (including unauthorized factory reset attempts) to the extent technologically feasible (e.g., locking the smartphone as in 2 above).
  4. Reverse the inoperability if the smartphone is recovered by the authorized user and restore user data on the smartphone to the extent feasible (e.g., restored from the cloud).

Microsoft's announcement notes that they committed in April to follow the CTIA's guidelines and that they will be meeting the commitment before the July 2015 deadline. When it is available, it "...will be offered as an update for all phones running Windows Phone 8.0 and newer, though availability is subject to mobile operator and phone manufacturer approval."

Microsoft has already met many of these goals with Windows Phone's Find My Phone feature, as we noted in a story last September. The same story described Android Device Manager, which also matches many of the CTIA feature commitments.

A Google spokesperson told ZDNet: "Yes, the next version of Android will include a factory reset protection solution to help deter smartphone theft. We will be releasing more details shortly."

But Apple has been the leader in this area, having delivered factory-reset protection with iOS 7.

The CTIA lists these companies as participating in the commitment: Apple; Asurion; AT&T; Google; HTC America; Huawei Device USA; LG Electronics MobileComm USA; Motorola Mobility; Microsoft; Nokia; Samsung Telecommunications America; Sprint; T-Mobile USA; U.S. Cellular; Verizon Wireless; and ZTE USA, Inc.

Widespread availability and use of these features should dampen the incentive to steal mobile phones. As Microsoft points out, other methods work in tandem with these to fight smartphone theft, such as when carriers check phones against a multinational stolen phone database before activating it on their network.

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