Cellular industry makes concession on kill switch

Carriers, phone makers and a lobbying group announce a voluntary agreement, but it might not be enough

Wireless carriers in the U.S., handset makers and the industry's lobbying group have made a significant concession on technology that could remotely disable stolen smartphones and tablets.

The companies say they will voluntarily offer software that can remotely disable and wipe phones, starting with new handsets sold in the second half of next year.

The mobile industry has faced mounting pressure from politicians and police to tackle an epidemic of smartphone and tablet thefts. But some critics Tuesday said the voluntary program does not go far enough.

"The wireless industry today has taken an incremental yet inadequate step to address the epidemic of smartphone theft," said California State Senator Mark Leno.

Thefts of smartphones and tablets, often at gun- or knife-point, account for more than half of all street robberies in San Francisco and a fifth of those in New York. As a result, police officials in both cities have been asking the cellular industry for over a year to install a remote kill switch on devices.

The kill switch, which would be triggered by the user, would lock a phone so that it can't be reused or reprogrammed. Advocates say that such a technology, if made standard on all phones, would dramatically reduce street crime.

The industry has so far rejected the idea, citing in part the inconvenience to consumers if a phone is accidentally disabled. But earlier this year, legislation was introduced in the U.S. Senate, the House of Representatives and California State Senate that would require the technology by law.

Tuesday's announcement appears to be a move by the industry to avoid legislation by adopting a form of the technology voluntarily. But there are considerable gaps between what the carriers are offering to install and what the proposed laws would require.

"Today's 'opt-in' proposal misses the mark if the ultimate goal is to combat street crime and violent thefts involving smartphones and tablets," said Senator Leno, who is behind the California legislation.

The industry's proposal covers only new handsets manufactured after June 2015, which means it will likely apply only to phones sold late next year. The proposed laws would apply to phones sold from the beginning of 2015.

And under the voluntary proposal, the technology would not be enabled or even installed by default. The agreement says it would be "preloaded or downloadable."

"We strongly urge CTIA and its members to make their anti-theft features enabled by default on all devices, rather than relying on consumers to opt-in," San Francisco District Attorney George Gascon and New York State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman said in a joint statement. The two have led the push for the wireless industry to do more.

"The industry also has a responsibility to protect its consumers now and not wait until next year," they said.

The voluntary agreement has been signed by AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile, U.S. Cellular and Verizon. Others who are on board include Apple, Google, HTC, Huawei, Motorola, Microsoft, Nokia, Samsung and Asurion, which sells smartphone insurance.

Apple is closest among those companies to already having a satisfactory technology in its products. Last year it introduced "Activation Lock" with iOS 7, which carries out most of the functions required. The only complaint levied at Apple is that the software is opt-in rather than being turned on by default.

Martyn Williams covers mobile telecoms, Silicon Valley and general technology breaking news for The IDG News Service. Follow Martyn on Twitter at @martyn_williams. Martyn's e-mail address is martyn_williams@idg.com

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Martyn Williams

IDG News Service

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