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Google and Microsoft to Add Mobile Device Kill Switch

Photo credit: Dirima/Shutterstock.com
Photo credit: Dirima/Shutterstock.com

Following in the footsteps of Apple, Google and Microsoft have announced that they will incorporate a kill switch into the next version of their respective operating systems. This will give carriers and their customers the ability to turn a phone into a paperweight in order to lock down any sensitive data on the device.

Together, Android, iOS and Windows Phone control 97% of smartphones in the US.

The announcement is part of a new report issued by the Secure Our Smartphones (S.O.S.) Initiative, an international partnership of law-enforcement agencies, elected officials and consumer advocates.

The report also revealed new crime statistics showing that, after Apple added a "kill switch," robberies and grand larcenies involving iPhones plummeted. Simultaneously, violent crimes against people carrying phones without a kill switch surged.

“The commitments of Google and Microsoft are giant steps toward consumer safety and the statistics released today illustrate the stunning effectiveness of kill switches,” said New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, in a statement. “In just one year, the Secure Our Smartphones Initiative has made tremendous strides towards curtailing the alarming trend of violent smartphone theft. We will continue the fight to ensure that companies put consumers’ safety first and work toward ending the epidemic of smartphone theft. ”

In New York City, theft of iPhones fell significantly after the release of Apple’s Activation Lock last September. In the first five months of 2014, robberies and grand larcenies involving Apple products dropped 19% and 29%, respectively, compared to the same time period from 2013. The decrease in Apple thefts far surpassed the citywide decrease in all robberies (down 10%) and all grand larcenies (down 18%). Perhaps most tellingly, robberies and grand larcenies from a person involving a Samsung smartphone, which did not have a kill switch during much of this time, increased by more than 40%. (Encouragingly, Samsung introduced a kill switch solution in April of 2014 on its Verizon Wireless devices.)

Statistics from San Francisco and London show similar outcomes. In San Francisco, iPhone robberies declined 38%, while robberies of Samsung devices increased by 12%. In London, Apple thefts declined by 24%, while Samsung thefts increased by 3%. (In both cities, data from six months leading up to Apple’s Activation Lock was compared to the six months following its introduction.)

“We can make the violent epidemic of smartphone theft a thing of the past, and these numbers prove that,” said San Francisco District Attorney George Gascón. “It was evident from day one that a technological solution was not only possible, but that it would serve as an effective deterrent to this growing threat. This past year we successfully held the wireless industry’s feet to the fire and it’s already having an impact for consumers. In the year ahead we will work to ensure this technology is deployed industry-wide, and in the most effective manner possible.”

Earlier this year, S.O.S. worked with Senator Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) and Representative Jose Serrano (D-N.Y.) to introduce companion federal legislation to require carriers and manufacturers to make kill switch anti-theft solutions mandatory for all smartphones in the US. On May 15, Minnesota became the first state to mandate a kill switch on all phones.

Richard Aborn, president of the Citizens Crime Commission of New York City, added, "Cell phone theft has become a major public safety issue in New York and across the country. Unfortunately, these robberies often become violent and put innocent people at serious risk. Local law enforcement, Congress, and hardware and software companies must work together to make stealing a smartphone a worthless endeavor for criminals."

In April 2014, the industry group CTIA abandoned its long-held opposition to a kill switch and announced a Smartphone Anti-Theft Voluntary Commitment, in which AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile, U.S. Cellular, Verizon Wireless and others pledged to implement a kill switch solution on an opt-in basis.

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