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Law enforcement demands smartphone 'kill switch'

Image: Smartphone press conference
Annie Palazzolo, second from right, joins San Francisco District Attorney George Gascon, far left, and New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, far right at a press conference on Thursday in New York. Palazzolo, 29, who told of her sister's killing in a cellphone robbery, helps launch theBebeto Matthews / AP

Police and prosecutors from across the country told smartphone manufacturers on Thursday that they must take steps to solve the “epidemic “of thefts involving mobile devices – and they need to do it right away.

A coalition of law enforcement officials, political leaders and consumer groups, called the Secure Our Smartphones (S.O.S) Initiative, wants a “kill switch” installed on all new smartphones that would make them useless anywhere in the world if they are reported stolen.

They want all smartphones equipped with a kill switch by early next year and they don’t want customers to foot the bill for this security technology.

“The industry has a moral and social obligation to fix this problem,” said San Francisco District Attorney George Gascon.

The S.O.S. Initiative is spearheaded by Gascon and New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman. The two prosecutors hosted a “Smartphone Summit” in New York City on Thursday with the major mobile device manufacturers: Apple, Google/Motorola, Microsoft and Samsung.

The coalition made it clear is it demanding action and will not back down until the problem is solved.

The theft of mobile devices – smartphones and tablets – is now called “the fastest-growing street crime” in America. People across the country have been stabbed and mugged at gunpoint for their electronic devices, which are easy to resell. A stolen iPhone can fetch $300 or more on the black market.

The numbers are staggering:

  • 1.6 million Americans had a handheld device stolen last year.
  • One in every three robberies nationwide involves a stolen cell phone.
  • Approximately half of all robberies in San Francisco involved a mobile communications device.
  • In New York City, cell phone robberies increased 40 percent in the past year. In 2012, a 26-year old chef at the Museum of Modern Art was killed for his iPhone. Police there now use the term “apple-picking” to refer to the theft of iPhones and other mobile products, like iPads.

At the closed-door summit, Apple and Samsung outlined the improved security software they are developing to tackle the problem. Apple’s new i OS 7 operating system will include an “activation lock” when it’s released this fall.

While acknowledging that Apple and Samsung have taken steps in the right direction, S.O.S. wants a hardware solution that cannot be circumvented by hackers.

A.G. Schneiderman told NBC News he felt the meeting was positive and will result in a way to dry up the market for stolen mobile devices.

“The manufacturers conceded that a hardware-based kill switch was technologically feasible,” he said. “Once they conceded that, there’s really no reason not to immediately start working on installing that on all of their hardware.”

The companies said they were worried this technology would eliminate consumer choice, Schneiderman told me. But he doesn’t see it that way, since it’s the owner of the device who decides whether to have the kill switch activated. He compared it to cancelling a credit card.

Image: Smartphone
The theft of mobile devices – smartphones and tablets – is now called “the fastest-growing street crime” in America.NICOLAS ASFOURI / AFP - Getty Images

“If someone hits me and takes my smartphone, I’m not interested in trying to track them and hope I get my phone back,” Schneiderman said. I want to kill that phone.”

How a kill switch would work

The technology, as envisioned by S.O.S., would make stolen devices permanently inoperable on any network, anywhere in the world, if they are reported stolen. It would disable the device even if it’s turned off, the SIM card is removed or the phone is modified to avoid detection.

The thinking is: block the ability to reactivate the mobile device, the ability to resell it would disappear and the incentive to steal it would be eliminated.

Many smartphones can now be disabled if they are lost or stolen. More than a year ago, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and the CTIA – The Wireless Association created a database to prevent the use of stolen digital devices.

Police chiefs across the country are happy this was done, but they say it has not solved the problem.

In a recent letter to the FCC, Philadelphia Police Commissioner Charles Ramey wrote, “Many smartphones that are ‘disabled’ still have the capacity to access WiFi networks or may be operable with carriers not in the database.” That’s why police chiefs across the country support kill-switch technology.

Footnote: In the time it took you to read this story, more than 300 smartphones were lost or stolen in this country.

The Associated Press Contributed to this story

Herb Weisbaum is The ConsumerMan. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter or visit The ConsumerMan website.