All Smartphones To Have Killswitch Option

The cellphone industry has agreed to add a “killswitch” so users can remotely disable a lost or stolen phone. But it’ll be opt-in, something that’s left lawmakers unsatisfied.

Politicians in several areas have pushed for state or local laws that would force phone manufacturers to include a killswitch in all new phones, with network carriers forced to support the feature. Last June state prosecutors from New York (Eric Schneiderman) and San Francisco (George Gascon) set up a joint campaign with police and government agencies and held a summit with Apple, Google, Microsoft and Samsung to push the issue.

The argument of the politicians is that if every phone had a killswitch, would-be thieves would know that any handset could quickly lose resale value, making them a less attractive target. That could in turn reduce thefts, particular in the form of muggings.

Those of a more cynical nature have pondered that the cellphone industry doesn’t have much incentive to offer such protection as a drop in phone theft would mean selling fewer specialist insurance policies or replacement handsets.

Now CTIA-The Wireless Association (a trade body of the major Carriers) has agreed a deal with major manufacturers including Apple, Google, GTC, Huwei, Microsoft, Motorola, Nokia and Samsung. Under the deal, smartphones made after July next year and sold in the US will support a “baseline anti-theft tool” supported by all carriers.

However, the wording of the deal says manufacturers can decide whether to preload the tool or simply make it available for download. They won’t be able to charge a fee for installing or using the basic feature.

It doesn’t appear there’ll be a standard tool across all devices. Instead each manufacturer will have to develop software that at least offers the ability to:

  • remotely wipe user data;
  • remotely block all use except for 911 calls and any number the user has designated as an emergency contact;
  • block anyone other than the user from reactivating the phone, even through methods such as a factory reset, “to the extent technologically feasible”; and
  • let the user reactivate the phone if they get it back and restore any data that’s been backed up.

The move is purely voluntary and there’s nothing forcing any manufacturer or carrier to sign up to the agreement or to live up to their public commitment, other than the threat of getting bad publicity.

Gascon and Schneiderman welcomed the principle of the agreement but said the killswitch needs to be installed by default and that the move should take effect as soon as possible rather than being delayed until next summer. Other politicians have noted that an opt-in system may not deter thieves if they still believe there’s a decent shot any individual handset isn’t protected.

[Photo Credit: West Midlands Police (CC)]

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