Do we need a mobile kill-switch to stop mobile theft?

small__6818192898Smartphones, phablets, and even tablets continue to grow more powerful with each new release. Consumers are now more reliant on their mobile devices than ever, as they can accomplish many tasks while en route to work or a meeting. The downside with this mobile era is that more sensitive data is stored on our devices, which makes things really complicated when the device gets lost or stolen.

People also use their mobile devices to purchase things online and manage their bank accounts. If someone gets a hold of their device, they may have to kiss goodbye to their savings.

There are some apps which allow users to remotely wipe data from their phone if it gets lost or stolen, but not everyone knows about them. Which is why OEMs are now proposing to have smartphones come with a kill-switch that would render a stolen or lost device useless.

The kill-switch initiative


Several states and municipalities in the US are considering mandatory kill-switch laws for mobile devices, and this has led to the wireless industry announcing a voluntary commitment to include a new anti-theft technology available on phones which will be released next year.

Apple, Google, HTC, Huawei, Motorola, Microsoft, Nokia and Samsung, as well as five of the largest network carriers in the US, have all agreed that devices going on sale after July 2015 will be equipped with technology that allows users to wipe data on their device and prevent it from being reactivated without their permission. User’s data would backed up and if the device is retrieved, it can be fully restored.

This concept is not new as there’s already a similar feature on the iPhone. Apple introduced the Activation Lock feature in iOS 7. The feature is automatically turned on when a user sets up Find My iPhone, and means the phone cannot be accessed without the owner’s Apple ID. This renders the device inoperable in the wrong hands.

Having this kind of security on all smartphones would beneficial for many mobile users, and could also be a way to fight off mobile theft. Though this effort is commendable, California state Senator Mark Leno believes that what the mobile industry needs is a mandatory kill-switch law which would mean users don’t have a choice of switching the security feature on or off. He suggests that smartphones be equipped with a kill-switch that would prevent the device from being reactivated again. He believes that a mandatory kill-switch is the only effective way to deter mobile theft.

“While I am encouraged by the incremental progress, the wireless industry must commit to the whole solution, not just a piece of it, to protect their customers and make our streets safer,” Leno said.

No to kill-switch


The CTIA doesn’t see a kill-switch as the answer to stop mobile theft as it could pose more problems.  If someone activates the kill-switch because they thought they’d lost their smartphone, only to find it later, there would be means to reactivate the phone. Also, a kill-switch could be exploited by hackers and allow them to deactivate phones currently in use.

CTIA President Steve Largent says consumers deserve to enjoy the freedom of accessing apps and services that are suited to their lifestyle.

“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. At the same time, it’s important different technologies are available so that a ‘trap door’ isn’t created that could be exploited by hackers and criminals,” Largent stated.

The initiative to secure smartphones began last year and was led by the New York attorney general, Eric T. Schneiderman, and the San Francisco district attorney, George Gascón. The two met with the biggest and most influential smartphone manufacturers as well as top network carriers in the hopes of coming up with a plan to secure mobile devices in case they get stolen or lost. Samsung proposed preloading phones with Absolute LoJack anti-theft software as a standard feature, but the network carriers opposed this suggestion citing security concerns.

A kill-switch may help deter mobile theft, but manufacturers and carriers need to come up with a better plan to secure devices, other than rendering the device inoperable, even for owner. Apple’s Activation Lock or something very much like it, seems the most feasible solution to keep mobile devices safe.

photo credit: elhombredenegro via photopin cc