As iPhone thefts drop, Google and Microsoft plan kill switches on smartphones

After a year of pressure, U.S. law enforcement officials announce a major success in their phone anti-theft push

Responding to more than a year of pressure, Google and Microsoft will follow Apple in adding an anti-theft "kill switch" to their smartphone operating systems, U.S. law enforcement officials will announce later Thursday.

The commitment will be disclosed alongside new data that shows a dramatic drop in theft of Apple iPhones and iPads after the September 2013 introduction of iOS 7, which included a kill-switch function that allows stolen devices to be remotely locked and deleted so they become useless.

In New York, iPhone theft was down 19 percent in the first five months of this year, which is almost double the 10 percent drop in overall robberies seen in the city. Over the same period, thefts of Samsung devices -- which did not include a kill switch until one was introduced on Verizon-only models in April -- rose by over 40 percent.

In San Francisco, robberies of iPhones were 38 percent lower in the six months after the iOS 7 introduction versus the six months before, while in London thefts over the same period were down by 24 percent. In both cities, robberies of Samsung devices increased.

"These statistics validate what we always knew to be true, that a technological solution has the potential to end the victimization of wireless consumers everywhere," San Francisco District Attorney George Gascon told IDG News Service.

Gascon and New York State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman have been leading a push to get smartphone vendors and telecom carriers to include kill switches in their products as a way to curb phone theft.

The joint work had early success with Apple but other carriers and phone makers dragged their feet. However, resistance to the idea appears to be dropping as several bills that mandate kill switches make their way through state legislatures and the U.S. Congress.

The bills demand a function that would enable a phone owner to remotely delete and disable a phone if stolen. The function could be disabled by consumers before a theft takes place if desired, but crucially new handsets would be supplied with it switched on by default.

Gascon and Schneiderman believe that if most phones had a kill switch, thefts would drop because the probability of a stolen phone remaining useful and thus having value would greatly diminish.

The two said the data being released on Thursday appears to "validate the kill switch as an effective part of a multi-layered approach to combatting smartphone crimes." Although it's worth remembering that crime is a complex subject and other factors could have contributed to the fall in Apple-related thefts or the rise in those of Samsung phones.

"We must ensure these solutions are deployed in a more effective manner that does not rely on consumers to seek them out an turn them on, but the fact that virtually the entire industry has responded to our call to action is an indication that we are well on our way to ending this public safety crisis," Gascon said.

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

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