Kill switch proposals finally force wireless industry's hand


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Good news: You’re finally going to be getting that theft-deterring kill switch as a standard feature on your mobile device. But when that feature becomes available next year, it may not be in the form the wireless industry would prefer.

A kill switch renders a smartphone or tablet useless if a thief makes off with your device and has been touted as a solution to the sharp rise in smartphone thefts in recent years. On Tuesday, hardware makers and wireless carriers pledged to provide software for remotely disabling and wiping stolen devices on tablets and phones starting in June 2015.

But it’s a bit imprecise to say that this is a new pledge from hardware makers, many of whom already offer some type of kill-switch capability. Apple, for example, introduced Activation Lock, which prevents thieves from turning off the Find My iPhone feature and then erasing your iPad or iPhone to reuse as their own. Google’s Android Device Manager lets you remotely wipe a missing device while Samsung’s Find My Mobile offering lets you lockdown a mobile device.

No, it’s the carriers and the CTIA, the wireless industry’s lobbying arm, that have been slow to embrace mandatory kill switches. Just last year, the trade group declared that a kill switch isn’t the answer to deterring smartphone theft, fretting that hackers could use the feature to cause mischief. (A cynic might suggest that the real concern is that a technological fix might cut into the profits wireless carriers enjoy from insurance programs for lost or stolen smartphones, but we would never stoop to suggesting that a business might keep an eye on the bottom line when deciding what features are worth embracing.)

Secure Our Smartphones (SOS) initiative being announced at press conference in New York

Elected officials have been pushing carriers and hardware makers to do something about the spike in smartphone thefts.

Anyhow, that was 2013. As of April 15, 2014, the CTIA is now fully behind this kill switch idea, or at least the version of a kill switch that its members have agreed to implement. “We appreciate the commitment made by [phone makers and carriers] to protect wireless users in the event their smartphones are lost or stolen,” CTIA president and CEO Steve Largent said in a statement accompanying Tuesday’s announcement. “This flexibility provides consumers with access to the best features and apps that fit their unique needs while protecting their smartphones and the valuable information they contain.”

There’s a reason for this change of heart, and it comes in the form of proposed legislation. California lawmakers are mulling whether to mandate a kill switch for devices sold in that state, and similar bills have been introduced at the federal level. Minnesota may beat both California and Congress to the punch, with a vote on its own kill switch proposal looming in the state legislature. Tuesday’s announcement has the whiff of the wireless industry trying to dictate the terms of its surrender on the kill switch issue before lawmakers do it for them.

“By working together with policymakers, law enforcement and consumers, we will deter theft and protect users’ personal information on smartphones,” CTIA’s Largent said, likely as he closed the barn doors before anyone noticed that the cows had vamoosed. 

To be fair to the CTIA, its newfound support for the kill switch garnered praise from some lawmakers, including the author of that Minnesota proposal. The state senator pushing California’s kill-switch legislation took a decidedly more critical tone, though, noting that the wireless industry’s pledge would require consumers to either download or activate kill switch features on their own. Some kill switch advocates want the feature turned on by default if it’s to have any impact.

“[Tuesday’s] ‘opt-in’ proposal misses the mark if the ultimate goal is to combat street crime and violent thefts involving smartphones and tablets,” said Mark Leno, the California Democrat pushing kill-switch legislation in that state (which would require phones to have a kill switch in place by the start of 2015, not midway through the year like the industry would prefer).

And there’s the rub. Hardware makers and carriers can make whatever pledges they care to about kill switch features. But they’re going to still have convince the people pushing for mandated kill switches that their proposal goes far enough.

This story, "Kill switch proposals finally force wireless industry's hand" was originally published by TechHive.

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