The curious tale of the smartphone kill switch

A recent report from TeleGeography said that Europe has the highest mobile penetration of any other region in the world at 138 per cent. That means a great many of us are walking around with more than one mobile device worth several hundred euros apiece in bags and pockets.

Despite our best efforts to safeguard our various gadgets, smartphone theft has been rife. In 2013, statistics showed that around 300 mobile phones were stolen in London every day, for example.

However, in February this year a report from the office of the New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, in collaboration with London Mayor Boris Johnson and San Francisco District Attorney George Gascón, revealed that so-called "kill switches" on smartphones were having a marked impact on thefts in the three cities. The first kill switch was launched by Apple, which introduced the Activation Lock in 2013.

For example, the report said London recorded a 40 per cent drop in smartphone thefts in the 12 months prior to October 2014 compared to the 12 months prior to October 2013 – the year after kill switches were introduced. The monthly average for the number of phones stolen has also halved since September 2013 – resulting in 20,000 fewer victims annually.

Such statistics certainly show a promising trend, although of course things are never that simple. Some cities have actually seen an increase in thefts, while thieves are apparently already now working out how to disable the location-tracking features that enable users to track and disable their stolen devices.

Whether kill switches are the ultimate answer or not, they are clearly having an impact at some level. Indeed, the Secure Our Smartphones (SOS) Initiative co-chaired by the three city leaders has called on the smartphone industry to adopt kill switch technology as a theft deterrent on a universal basis.

As well as Apple, Samsung introduced a kill switch-type solution in April 2014 on the Galaxy S5. Google released a version of Android with a kill switch in October 2014. Windows was due to release its kill switch-enabled operating system by July 2015.

Indeed, the U.S. has so far been pretty vocal on the issue. Industry body the CTIA announced measures agreed by U.S. operators, smartphone and platform vendors to introduce a type of kill switch technology by July 1, 2015. California has even gone as far as signing a bill into law requiring all smartphones sold in the state after July 1 to include this technology on an opt-out basis. Kill switch legislation has also recently been revived in the U.S. House and Senate.

Europe seems to have been curiously quiet on the issue. In 2014, the then European Commissioner for the Digital Agenda, Neelie Kroes, wrote in response to a question asked in the European Parliament that "currently, the Commission has no plans to introduce legislation that would make a hardware kill switch mandatory."

Kroes conceded nonetheless that a hardware kill switch for mobile phones that would incapacitate them permanently "is a simple technical solution proposed by the experts". She also noted that the Commission "encourages handset providers and mobile operators to introduce a wipe-all functionality that would make it possible to permanently erase all the sensitive data on the mobile handset when needed".

The results so far from the SOS Initiative certainly indicate that some form of kill switch can be a major deterrent to thieves as it prevents them from selling the devices elsewhere. Given that it appears to be a relatively small requirement to implement, the apparent lack of commentary from the European Commission seems curious. Certainly, it would be beneficial if such technology were to be applied across the industry as a whole to ensure uniformity, rather than on an ad hoc basis. Perhaps the EC has something else up its sleeve...I have contacted Commission spokespeople to find out the latest views.--Anne