A Crime-Fighting 'Kill Switch' In Smartphones Will Soon Be Mandatory, So Take That, Thieves

A handful of major phone companies announced Wednesday they'll feature new "kill switch" technology in all smartphones made after July 2015, a move which could have big anti-theft implications. It didn't come without a fight, however — the idea was resisted for months on end, and the companies caved only after Senate Democrats introduced legislation to mandate such features in February. Companies also only agreed to include the kill switch, which would allow users to remotely data their wipe and lock their stolen phones, if a consumer opts-in.

In light of their initial resistance, it seems clear that the mounting pressure on smartphone makers to incorporate kill switches became too much to bear. The agreement, a "voluntary commitment" released by the Cellular Telecommunications Industry Association, a wireless industry trade group, will apply to Apple, Samsung, AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile, and Verizon, among others.

The reason law enforcement and politicians started pushing so hard for this is pretty simple — uniform adoption of the kill switch, it's reasoned, could massively reduce smartphone theft. In addition to being much pricier than the dumbphones of yesteryear, the devices we carry around nowadays are often chock-full of sensitive information, ripe for fraud, identity theft and the like.

The successful implementation of a kill switch could stymie both incentives: Locking the thief out of your phone, and even if they somehow accessed it, wiping the data clean. Getting to carry a tiny, inoperable brick that's also evidence you committed a crime isn't exactly a coveted prize.

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The CTIA, however, long resisted the move on the grounds that the functionality opens up too many vulnerabilities which hackers could exploit. The group's president, Steve Largent (yes, the football player)/GOP congressman), said in a statement that different users having different options is vital:

... so that a ‘trap door’ isn’t created that could be exploited by hackers and criminals. ... 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.

New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman and San Francisco District Attorney George Gascón, both pro-kill switch hardliners, released a joint statement in response:

We strongly urge CTIA and its members to make their anti-theft features enabled by default on all devices, rather than relying on consumers to opt-in. The industry also has a responsibility to protect its consumers now and not wait until next year.

You never know what might happen between now and 2015. It's not impossible that more political pressure brought to bear could accelerate or change the timeline. But this is big news for anyone with a smartphone, or who's had one stolen. And that's a lot of people — there were about 1.6 million smartphone thefts in 2012, amounting to a sum cost of about $30 billion.