The Smartphone 'Kill Switch' Is Coming, But You'll Probably Have to Download It

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Lawmakers have been calling for manufactures and wireless carriers to include antitheft technology (i.e. the kill switch) on smartphones for some time now. Essentially, a kill switch would allow you to lock down your phone if it gets stolen, rendering it inoperable. The idea is to deter smartphone theft, which has been booming (especially in tech-saturated San Francisco) of late.

But the CTIA -- the industry trade group that represents leading phone manufacturers and service providers – has long been resistant, voicing concerns that a kill switch would allow hackers to remotely disable smartphones.

But yesterday, the CTIA changed its tune, announcing that over a dozen providers (including Apple, Google, Samsung, AT&T, T-Mobile, Verizon, and Sprint) have committed to offering free antitheft for all new phones made after July 2015.

Good start, say legislatures, but it's not enough.

Related: Lawmakers Push for 'Kill Switch' to Deter Smartphone Theft

Why? The CTIA's new "Smartphone Anti-Theft Voluntary Commitment" is just that: voluntary for consumers. The commitment stipulates that phones made after July 2015 will have either a "preloaded or downloadable" anti-theft device, which means that smartphones could still arrive without a kill switch, placing the responsibility on users to download it after purchase.

George Gascón and Eric T. Schneiderman, strong proponents of the universal kill switch as well as the district attorney generals for San Francisco and New York respectively, released a joint statement yesterday essentially saying that while it's a good step forward, CTIA's commitment doesn’t cut it.

"While CTIA’s decision to respond to our call for action by announcing a new voluntary commitment to make theft-deterrent features available on smartphones is a welcome step forward, it falls short of what is needed to effectively end the epidemic of smartphone theft," the statement said. "We strongly urge CTIA and its members to make their antitheft features enabled by default on all devices, rather than relying on consumers to opt-in."

Related: Here's One Big Reason Mobile Carriers Don't Want a 'Kill Switch' on Smartphones

Meanwhile, California State Senator Mark Leno presses on in his crusade to get kill switches included on all smartphones sold in the Golden State. He introduced a bill two months ago addressing the issue, which will be on the Senate floor for a vote later this spring.

In the meantime, the free software outlined in the CTIA's commitment includes the ability to do the following:

-- Remote wipe the authorized user's data (i.e., erase personal info that is added after purchase such as contacts, photos, emails, etc.) that is on the smartphone in the event it is lost or stolen.

-- Render the smartphone inoperable to an unauthorized user (e.g., locking the smartphone so it cannot be used without a password or PIN), except in accordance with FCC rules for 911 emergency communications, and if available, emergency numbers programmed by the authorized user (e.g., "phone home").

-- Prevent reactivation without authorized user's permission (including unauthorized factory reset attempts) to the extent technologically feasible (e.g., locking the smartphone as above).

-- Reverse the inoperability if the smartphone is recovered by the authorized user and restore user data on the smartphone to the extent feasible (e.g., restored from the cloud).

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