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Phone Makers Are Finally Considering Kill Switches to Turn Stolen Cells Into "Bricks"

Prosecutors are trying to convince Apple, Google, and Samsung to install "kill switches" that would render their products useless when stolen.
June 19, 2013, 2:30pm

Image via West Midlands Police/Flickr.

Phones aren't just phones anymore. They are also our personal insignias with which we paint our voices and signatures onto the digi-spheres—areas increasingly more important to an individual's reputation, credibility and security. It's no wonder we freak out when we lose them. They are, to an extent, our security blankets.

There are several great apps out there that let us remotely lock and wipe—even track and locate—our lost phones. But if you haven't installed those on your phone before the loss, you're kind of screwed. You ask yourself, "Why isn't there some stupid mechanism built into my phone that lets me remotely disable it?"

That's a question district attorneys in San Francisco and New York have been thrusting into the faces of Big Smartphone—Apple, Google, Microsoft and Samsung—for a couple months now, without much success. Last week, they ratcheted their campaign up a notch with the launch of the Secure Our Smartphones Initiative.

The national coalition of attorneys, politicians, police and consumer advocates is tasked with lobbying smartphone makers to help curb thefts of the devices, mainly through some kind of "kill switch" hardwired in that would shut down stolen phones.

"Our parameters for success are clear," said New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman. "Smartphone makers need to make every stolen phone a paperweight."

The FCC, phone makers, and police joined forces to create a centralized national database to track stolen phones. The idea is to prevent a hot phone from being activated. It's a good idea, except it's not deterring the crime—largely because the database doesn't track phones sold overseas. Phone theft continued its upward trend in 2012, accounting for about half of all robberies that year.

The Secure Our Smartphones Initiative goes a step further. Rather than simply track the devices, SOS operates under the assumption that being able to render a phone useless—to "brick" it —will sap their black market value and deter criminals from stealing them in the first place.

The trick, of course, is in persuading a multibillion industry to act against its own interest: the more phones stolen, the more phones that need to be bought to replace them. By not outfitting phones with bricking technology—a simple addition—phone makers are complicit in this nationwide robbery blitz, some critics argue.

Phones have become such popular targets that auto theft has "plummeted," says the executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum. "The cellphone industry has for the most part been in denial," he says.

At Apple's WWDC keynote in June, the company said it would add a security feature to phones operating on iOS 7. When activated, the feature would erase the phone's data and bring up a login screen.

Every electronic is, of course, hackable. And there's no reason to assume that installing kill switches is a full-proof anti-theft measure. Cofounder of the tech security company Lookout Kevin Mahaffey told CNN that "there are always ways around any system." However, he said, "any smart solution is better than the situation we have now."