Will the Smartphone Kill Switch Murder Mobile Device Theft?

The nascent kill switch movement appears to be an outgrowth of anti-theft commitments smartphone manufacturers made earlier this year.

by / June 23, 2014

Last week, New York State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman and San Francisco District Attorney George Gascon claimed in a press conference that thieves are finding kill switch-enabled iPhones less attractive, a trend that could increase with mobile devices in general now that Google and Microsoft plan to add kill switches to their mobile phones as well.

And kill switches are bad for crime, data from the Secure Our Smartphones report claims. iPhone theft, for example, decreased in San Francisco, London and New York after Apple's Activation Lock, America's first commercial kill switch, was put into the company's products in September 2013. The feature allows users to remotely disable stolen iPhones. According to the report, New York City robberies and larcenies involving Apple products dropped by 19 percent and 29 percent, respectively, in the first five months of 2014 compared to the same time period last year. San Francisco-based theft decreased by 38 percent, and London-based thefts decreased by 24 percent.

The genesis of the report data came about when Schneiderman and Gascon launched the Secure Our Smartphones Initiative in 2013 to begin a year-long effort to study anti-theft technology's impact and how product manufacturers could become partners in the process.

The implications are substantial if the data proves to be the beginning of a long-term trend. Apple claims  that 89 percent of mobile devices use the iOS operating system today, a staggering segment of potential devices for thieves to either target or bypass.

The Apple-Google-Microsoft kill switch trifecta could be a watershed in smartphone theft prevention, in Gascon's opinion. Samsung launched its own kill switch, the Reactivation Lock, in May.

"We can make the violent epidemic of smartphone theft a thing of the past, and these numbers prove that," he said. "It was evident from day one that a technological solution was not only possible, but that it would serve as an effective deterrent to this growing threat."

The nascent kill switch movement appears to be an outgrowth of anti-theft commitments smartphone manufacturers made earlier this year. Apple, AT&T, Google, Nokia and Samsung representatives signed the Smartphone Anti-Theft Voluntary Commitment in April. They pledged that anti-theft features would be incorporated into their products at no cost to consumers after 2015, but recent kill switch announcements and deployment indicate that several manufacturers aren't waiting that long.

Guidelines under the agreement state that participants should build devices that allow owners to remotely wipe data, like contacts, photos and emails, and render devices inoperable without passwords.

Hilton Collins

Hilton Collins is a former staff writer for Government Technology and Emergency Management magazines.

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