Carriers May Be Rejecting Kill Switches for Stolen Smartphones to Maintain Business

PHOTO: San Francisco District Attorney George Gascon speaks about using technology to avert smartphone theft during a press conference, June 13, 2013, in New York.
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About 1.6 million smartphones were stolen in 2012, Consumer Reports estimates.

George Gascón, the district attorney of San Francisco, wants to decrease that number by working with manufacturers to install kill switches that would render smartphones inoperable if reported as stolen. Gascón biggest opponents aren't the phone manufacturers, but the cellular providers.

Gascón said he reached out to Samsung this summer to implement the kill switches. "They engaged a third-party developer willing to develop it, and said they would roll it out with the Galaxy 5 phones," he told ABC News. "But the carriers said to Samsung, 'Absolutely not.' We were perplexed, so we started to look into it."

Gascón said he is suspicious of the wireless carriers' motives for rejecting the kill switch. "There were email conversations between Samsung and the kill-switch developer, saying that the carriers were concerned about losing business," he said. "I became outraged."

Samsung declined to comment on specific details involving Gascón, but issued the following statement: "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."

It might not be immediately apparent how a kill switch would decrease the number of smartphones stolen. Gascón said it might take some time to trickle down, but that once smartphone thieves see that they can't do anything with a stolen smartphone, their motivation to steal more phones will disappear.

He estimates that any effects could be two to three years down the road, depending on how often people replace their devices or update their operating system.

Both Verizon and AT&T declined to speak about the issue and deferred to CTIA-The Wireless Association for further comment. Jamie Hastings, vice president of external and state affairs for CTIA, did not directly address the decision regarding kill switches, but said all carriers are working on a multi-pronged approach to lower the number of phone thefts in the country.

"One of the components of the efforts was to create an integrated database designed to prevent stolen phones from being reactivated," Hastings said in a statement. "To assist users, we offer a list of apps to download that will remotely erase, track and/or lock the stolen devices."

Kevin Mahaffey, the chief technology officer of Lookout Mobile Security, said it's also important not to rush into any manufacturing decision that could have a big impact. "There are different risks associated with different technologies in order to solve a problem," he said. "There's no silver bullet or pixie dust to make it work."

While a kill switch might deter thieves, it could increase the risk of a cyberattack that could affect millions of phones at a time. "You have to appreciate the carrier perspective as well," Mahaffey said. "If your phone stops working, who do you expect to replace it?"

Like many issues, it all comes down to better understanding and communication between law enforcement, cell carriers and phone manufacturers.

"No one party has the whole picture," he said. "Each has their own insight, and we need to get all of these parties to work together."

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