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US prosecutors propose kill switch to prevent smartphone theft

The kill switch is part of an initiative to reduce thefts, which sometimes involve violence

By , IDG News Service
June 13, 2013 02:51 PM ET

IDG News Service - U.S. prosecutors are proposing that smartphone makers offer a "kill switch" in all new phones produced by the start of next year as part of an initiative to cut down on theft, which sometimes turns violent.

[ALSO: Smartphones driving violent crime across U.S.]

The "Secure Our Smartphones" initiative was announced by U.S. prosecutors and other groups Thursday, with a call for manufacturers to make it easier to disable lost or stolen smartphones. The call comes as law enforcement in the U.S. tackles growing crime related to smartphone theft, especially iPhones. The initiative involves state officials, police chiefs, district attorneys, attorneys general and consumer advocacy groups.

The initiative was announced by New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman and San Francisco District Attorney George GascA3n during a press conference in New York. About 1.6 million people were victims of smartphone theft in the U.S. last year. The goal of the initiative is to find technological fixes to reduce theft.

"Something on the order of 30 percent to 40 percent of all robberies are robberies of smartphones," Schneiderman said. "All too often these robberies turn violent. There are assaults, there are murders."

One of the ideas presented by Schneiderman is a "kill switch" that would render a smartphone useless. Disabling a smartphone should be as easy as canceling a credit card, Schneiderman said.

Smartphone theft is a multibillion dollar industry and the kill switch or equivalent features would eliminate the financial incentive to steal cellphones, Schneiderman said.

"We believe this is a problem that should be solvable at the very outside within a year, that all new products being produced by the first part of 2014 should have kill switches or comparable technology involved," Schneiderman said.

The initiative was announced ahead of a "smartphone summit" in which the prosecutors will meet with Apple, Google, Samsung and Microsoft to discuss the topic. The prosecutors said smartphone companies like Apple have in the past shown resistance to resolving the theft problem.

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

"We're not going away until the problem goes away," Schneiderman said.

Apple and other companies have offered some proposals, but more needs to be done to reduce the crime wave around smartphones, he said.

GascA3n said he met with Apple on the topic, but was stonewalled with a response that technological solutions were not available. Apple recently introduced a feature called "Activation Lock," in iOS 7 that requires an iPhone owner to enter a username and password to enable a locked or wiped phone. The feature makes it difficult to resell a lost or stolen iPhone, but GascA3n said it doesn't go far enough to reduce smartphone theft.

"We're not entirely sure what the functionality of the system is. Apple has been very vague as to what the system will do. But we're led to believe that it will certainly not be a kill switch in the terms that we are advocating for today," GascA3n said.

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