Mobile carriers want your phone vulnerable to theft

Muggers and thieves love smartphones. They're small, light, easy to grab, and worth hundreds of dollars. The good news: We have the technology to make a stolen phone about as valuable as a broken stapler. The bad: Verizon, AT&T, and other mobile service providers don't want you to have it.

Smartphone theft is a very serious problem. According to a Consumer Reports study, 1.6 million Americans lost their smartphones to theft last year. A CBS News report states that New York City saw a 40-percent jump in such thefts over the same period. Many smartphone thefts are violent, smash-and-grab assaults.

And when your smartphone is stolen, you may lose more than just $500 worth of hardware. If someone can crack your passcode, they'll have access to all of the information on your phone, and quite likely everything in your various cloud-based accounts.

The best fix for the problem, most experts agree, is for each phone to come with a kill switch. If your phone is stolen, you go to another Internet device, enter some identifying information and a password, and your phone turns into an inanimate, worthless paperweight.

But for kill switches to become true deterrents, they have to be universal. Criminals would need to learn, probably from experience, that if they probably won't make any money from your stolen phone.

According to the CBS report, San Francisco District Attorney George Gascon wants kill switches to become universal. "This is an area where a technological solution can render these phones basically worthless on the secondary market." At least some phone manufacturers, including Samsung also support the idea.

So who's keeping this from happening? Verizon, AT&T, T-Mobile, Sprint, and US Cellular. According to an unidentified industry executive quoted by CBS, "They've received responses from all five major U.S. carriers and they've all denied our preload in their image..."

Why would they object? San Francisco's Gascon suspects the bottom line is to blame. If criminals stopped stealing smartphones, consumers would stop buying anti-theft insurance. They'd also stop buying replacements for stolen phones. "We're talking about a $60-billion-a-year industry," says Gascon, "and about a half of that seems to be attached to the replacement of phones that are being stolen."

Of course the carriers deny the charges. The Wireless Association, also known as the Cellular Telecommunications Industry Association (CTIA), told CBS that "its member companies worked hard over the last year to help law enforcement with its stolen phone problem..." Their primary solution: "an integrated database designed to prevent stolen phones from being reactivated."

CBS News senior correspondent and FBI insider John Miller explained why the registry won't be as effective a solution: "You have to get on the stolen phone registry, you have to go find your phone, you have to go do this -- with [a kill switch], you just say, through one device to another, 'you're a paperweight now.'"

Miller also pointed out that Apple added a kill switch to the iPhone with iOS7. "… if you steal a phone with the new operating system and you're the thief, you can't use it, you can't sell it, nobody you sell it to can use it." It will be interesting to see if, over time, iPhone thefts drop because of this feature.

Apple can add a kill switch because they control the operating system and the hardware. In the decentralized Android universe, the carriers have greater veto power.

And as long as they have it, you'll have to look over your shoulder while using your phone in public.

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