Carriers, along with Apple, Samsung, Nokia and others, join forces on anti-theft measures

Tools

The nation's largest wireless carriers and device makers banded together to support voluntary anti-theft measures for smartphones released starting next year. The action comes amid mounting efforts by state lawmaker to mandate so-called "kill switches" in smartphones and tablets that would render the devices useless if stolen.

Verizon Wireless (NYSE: VZ), AT&T Mobility (NYSE: T), Sprint (NYSE: S), T-Mobile US (NYSE:TMUS) and U.S. Cellular (NYSE:USM) joined forces with a host of popular smartphone and platform vendors to endorse the measures. Those companies include Apple (NASDAQ: AAPL), Google (NASDAQ: GOOG), HTC, Huawei, Motorola Mobility, Microsoft (NASDAQ: MSFT), Nokia (NYSE:NOK) and Samsung Electronics. The move was announced by the CTIA.

The handset makers and platform vendors agreed that for new smartphones manufactured after July 2015 for retail sale in the United States they will offer, at no cost to consumers, what the companies call "a baseline anti-theft tool that is preloaded or downloadable on wireless smartphones."

The tools will allow for the remote wiping of a user's data if it the device is lost or stolen; a tool that will make the smartphone inoperable to an unauthorized user (for example, by locking the smartphone so it cannot be used without a password or PIN), except in accordance with FCC rules for 911 emergency communications; a tool that will prevent reactivation of the phone without authorization from the user; and a tool to allow authorized users to restore their data if the phone is recovered.

In February lawmakers in California proposed legislation that would require wireless carriers to install a so-called "kill switch" in smartphones and tablets sold in the state that would render the devices useless if stolen. If passed and signed into law, the bill would require phones and tablets sold in California on or after Jan. 1, 2015, to include the antitheft solution. The thinking is that if California passes such a law the industry will be forced to respond nationally because it would be cumbersome and inefficient to design phones with the kill switch specifically for devices sold in California. California is also the largest state economy in the country. Lawmakers in Minnesota are working on similar legislation.

However, some lawmakers and law enforcement officials said the voluntary solutions do not go far enough to protect consumers. "The wireless industry today has taken an incremental yet inadequate step to address the epidemic of smartphone theft," California state Sen. Mark Leno (D-San Francisco), who introduced the California bill, said in a statement. "Only weeks ago, they claimed that the approach they are taking today was infeasible and counterproductive. While I am encouraged they are moving off of that position so quickly, today's 'opt-in' proposal misses the mark if the ultimate goal is to combat street crime and violent thefts involving smartphones and tablets."

San Francisco's district attorney, George Gascón, has worked on the device theft issue with Eric Schneiderman, New York's attorney general. The pair has given handset makers a June deadline to find ways to cut down on smartphone theft. They agreed the new initiative doesn't do enough.

"While CTIA's decision to respond to our call for action by announcing a new voluntary commitment to make theft-deterrent features available on smartphones is a welcome step forward, it falls short of what is needed to effectively end the epidemic of smartphone theft," the two said in a joint statement. "We strongly urge CTIA and its members to make their antitheft features enabled by default on all devices, rather than relying on consumers to opt-in."

Gascón has said more than half the robberies in San Francisco involve theft of mobile devices. According to a February New York Times report, which cited the San Francisco police, 2,400 cell phones were stolen in San Francisco last year, a 23 percent jump from 2012. Phone thefts also grew in New York and Washington, D.C., last year, according to police statistics, the report said.

CTIA President Steve Largent praised the move. "We appreciate the commitment made by these companies to protect wireless users in the event their smartphones are lost or stolen," he said in a statement. "This flexibility provides consumers with access to the best features and apps that fit their unique needs while protecting their smartphones and the valuable information they contain. At the same time, it's important different technologies are available so that a 'trap door' isn't created that could be exploited by hackers and criminals."

For more:
- see this CTIA release
- see this AP article
- see this Re/code article
- see this CNET article

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