Report indicates smartphone 'kill switch' not foolproof

According to a new report by the Wall Street Journal, smartphone "kill switches" may not be as effective as they initially appeared. The publication noted that iPhone thefts and robberies in Seattle increased by more than 30 percent in the year after Apple introduced the function to its iPhones, which it did in September 2013.

While the WSJ noted that Seattle thefts increased, the publication reported that thefts elsewhere during the period decreased. Austin saw a 17 percent decline in lost and stolen iPhones in the six months after the kill switch was introduced, WSJ reported, and Oakland, Calif., saw an 11 percent decrease in stolen iPhones in the first six months after the technology became available. However, Oakland noted a slight increase in the first full year as thefts picked up again.

The reporting is noteworthy considering CTIA earlier this month said that a group of wireless carriers and smartphone makers had implemented a set of voluntary principles aimed at stopping smartphone theft. The announcement came just as a California law requiring smartphones sold in the state to have a "kill switch" went into effect.  

In April 2014, 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 anti-theft measures. Those companies include Apple (NASDAQ: AAPL), Assurant, Asurion, BlackBerry (NASDAQ:BBRY), Google (NASDAQ: GOOG), HTC, Huawei, LG Electronics, Motorola Mobility, Microsoft (NASDAQ: MSFT), Samsung Electronics and ZTE.

The handset makers and platform vendors had 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."

So-called kill switches are intended to prevent thieves from making a profit on stolen phones by deactivating pilfered devices. And some initial statistics have shown that the technology works: A recent study from the Consumer Reports National Research Center concluded that 2.1 million Americans had their phones stolen last year, down 32 percent from 2013. In New York City, according to Re/code, overall cellphone robberies are down 16 percent, with iPhone robberies down by 25 percent.

However, the WSJ noted that the picture is more complex because some thieves are impersonating users in order to hack into their phones. Thieves are also working to disable location-tracking features that would allow phone owners to find out where their stolen phones are.

"I have seen time and time again, the technological fixes can always be circumvented, and it's purely a question of economics," James Baldinger, a lawyer who works on cellphone-fraud investigations for Sprint and other phone companies, told the WSJ.

For more:
- see this WSJ article

Related articles:
Carriers, Apple, Samsung, Microsoft and others put anti-theft measures in place for smartphones
FCC's Wheeler calls for carriers, OEMs to add anti-theft measures to all phones
California mandates smartphone 'kill switches,' starting in 2015, to deter thieves
Carriers, along with Apple, Samsung, Nokia and others, join forces on anti-theft measures