Wireless carriers push back on 'kill switch' for stolen smartphones

Local law enforcement officials want wireless carriers and device makers to install so-called "kill switches" in smartphones to disable them remotely and render them useless if they are stolen. However, carriers and the CTIA have pushed back on the idea, arguing that such technology would be too vulnerable to hacking.

Yet emails uncovered by CBS News and those reviewed by San Francisco's district attorney, George Gascón, reveal that the carriers are unwilling to buy into the idea of a kill switch, and Gascón thinks they are taking the stance to protect the profits they make from selling anti-theft insurance and replacement phones.

"We're talking about a $60-billion-a-year industry, and about a half of that seems to be attached to the replacement of phones that are being stolen," he told CBS "So we're talking about a lot of money here."

Gascón said he had been working with Samsung Electronics on a deal to include antitheft software with all its phones sold in the United States. However, Verizon Wireless (NYSE:VZ), AT&T Mobility (NYSE:T), Sprint (NYSE:S), T-Mobile US (NYSE:TMUS) and U.S. Cellular (NYSE:USM) rejected the idea, he said. 

In one email obtained CBS an industry executive who was involved in the negotiations tells Samsung that: "They've received responses from all five major U.S. carriers and they've all denied our preload in their image...," meaning the carriers rejected the kill switch idea.

Gascón has worked with Eric Schneiderman, New York's attorney general, to form the Secure Our Smartphones coalition to press companies to solve the problem of stolen phones technologically. Gascón told CBS the theft of devices is almost 50 percent of all of the robberies and thefts in San Francisco. Schneiderman has also pushed for the kill switch idea, according to CBS.

The CTIA said in a June FCC filing that "a kill switch isn't the answer." According to the New York Times, the CTIA said that a kill switch would have drawbacks since hackers who took control of the feature could disable phones for customers. The trade group also said if a phone were deactivated and a customer later got it back, he or she could not reactivate it. However, that claim is not true in the case of Apple's (NASDAQ:AAPL) new antitheft feature, Activation Lock.

The CTIA also points out that carriers have set up a national database to meant to deactivate phones that have been reported stolen. However, the Times notes that several police officials have said that the database has been ineffective in deterring crime because many of the stolen phones end up overseas, where the database is not in force.

The trade group also said it supported legislation by Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), which proposed to make it a federal crime to modify phones to circumvent the database. "When everyone--from the wireless companies, law enforcement, policy makers and consumers--work together, we will make a difference," Jamie Hastings, vice president of external and state affairs for CTIA, told the Times.

Samsung, for its part, confirmed that it was working with Gascón and the carriers on an antitheft solution, but declined to comment on the emails he referred to. "Samsung takes the issue of smartphone theft very seriously, and we are continuing to enhance our solutions," Samsung spokeswoman Jessica Redman told the Times. "We are working with the leaders of the Secure Our Smartphones (S.O.S.) Initiative to incorporate the perspective of law enforcement agencies. We will continue to work with them and our wireless carrier partners towards our common goal of stopping smartphone theft."

For more:
- see this NYT article
- see this CBS News article
- see this The Verge article

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