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Will A Kill Switch Stop Cellphones From Being Stolen?

Jun 13, 2013
Originally published on June 13, 2013 2:05 pm

Cellphone thefts are now the single biggest source of property crime in many American cities. A recent study found that lost and stolen phones cost consumers close to $30 billion a year. And 10 percent of smartphone owners say they've had a phone stolen.

Almost everyone has a story about losing their phone; even tech reporters are not immune.

NPR's Laura Sydell lost her phone and spent over three hours skulking around San Francisco using an app and an iPad to track her phone thief.

"So this friend came with me, and we went to this bar which seemed right where my phone was," Laura said. "But, of course, what are you going to do, walk around the bar saying, 'Did you steal my phone?' "

Laura could have set off an alarm on her phone and made it scream, but most cops recommend that you do not do this. Tracking down and confronting your cellphone thief isn't safe, or really smart, but it's tempting. And the technology that makes it possible makes phone thefts even more aggravating.

So some law enforcement officials, including New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, would like the industry to do something about it.

"There is a huge industry in stolen smartphones," Schneiderman says. "We now have in a lot of cities essentially open air markets for smartphones. We have sophisticated operations where they export them to other countries."

Schneiderman and others are asking tech companies to create a kill switch that, as Schneiderman puts it, will "make every one of these phones something that could be incapacitated and essentially turned into nothing more than a paperweight."

This week, Apple took a step in that direction. It will add a feature this fall that will render iPhones inoperable if thieves try to turn off a tracking program without a password.

If you can cancel a credit card, Schneiderman says, you should be able to cancel a phone: Transform it into a brick and take away the incentive for thieves. But some in the technology community say simply adding a kill switch to smartphones could create more problems.

"If there is a mechanism by which somebody can remotely disable and brick a device, we don't want that to be a target for malware," says Kevin Mahaffey, co-founder of the mobile security company Lookout.

Mahaffey's company is working with law enforcement groups to help find safe ways to build in a kill switch on smartphones.

"So, all of a sudden if there were a way that you can cause millions of devices to all of a sudden become inoperable, that can be a huge amount of money if somebody attacks that system," Mahaffey says.

Apple's new security feature won't roll out for a few months, but Schneiderman calls it a step in the right direction.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

The theft of cellphones is now the biggest source of property crime in many American cities, and some in law enforcement would like the industry to do something about it. Later today, New York State's attorney general, and San Francisco's district attorney, meet with the representatives of Apple, Samsung, Google and Microsoft. They're hoping to convince the tech companies to install a kill switch on cellphones that would make stolen devices useless. NPR's Steve Henn explains in today's Business Bottom Line.

STEVE HENN, BYLINE: Almost everyone has a story about losing their phone.

ROBERT MCNAMERA: Yep. My name is Robert McNamera.

HENN: But Robert McNamera's story is one of my favorites.

MCNAMERA: I live about a hundred miles north of London, which is just outside of Birmingham.

HENN: He's a cabbie, and McNamera has seen plenty of people leave phones in the back of his car. But when his phone was stolen, it wasn't the only thing that went missing.

MCNAMERA: Right. Well, what happened was, I was working on the Friday night; and I jumped out of the car to go running to a local shop, to buy a drink. When I come back out of the shop, the car had gone. My taxi had been stolen.

HENN: He had left his keys in the ignition, and his phone on the front seat. But afterward, McNamera ran home to a computer and activated an app on his phone that let him track it.

MCNAMERA: And then the police were able to track the signal as well; actually found my car within an hour of the car being stolen.

HENN: And that's the thing about stolen phones. It seems like with all the technology that's built into them, they should be easy to find. You'd think stealing a phone would be a very difficult crime to get away with. But it's not.

ERIC SCHNEIDERMAN: There is a huge industry in stolen smartphones.

HENN: Eric Schneiderman is New York's attorney general.

SCHNEIDERMAN: We now have, in a lot of cities, essentially open air markets for smartphones. We have sophisticated operations where they export them to other countries.

HENN: And a recent study found that lost and stolen phones cost consumers close to $30 billion a year. Ten percent of smartphone owners say they've had a phone stolen. Even tech reporters are not immune.

LAURA SYDELL, BYLINE: You know, I was having lunch with somebody.

HENN: That's my colleague Laura Sydell.

SYDELL: I walked out of the restaurant, and like all people these days - or not everybody, but like all rude people, I keep my phone out, and I must have left it on the table.

HENN: By the time Laura went back, someone had grabbed her phone. And Laura spent the next three hours skulking around San Francisco, using an app and an iPad to track her phone thief.

SYDELL: So this friend came with me and we went to this bar, which seemed right where my phone was. But of course, what are you going to do - walk around the bar saying, did you steal my phone? You know? (Laughing)

HENN: Now, Laura could have set off a alarm on her phone and made it scream. But that seemed dodgy, and most cops recommend that you do not do this. Tracking down and confronting your cellphone thief isn't safe or really, very smart. But it's tempting, and the technology that makes it possible also makes phone thefts even more aggravating. So today law enforcement officials like Schneiderman are asking tech companies for a different kind of fix. They want a kill switch that could...

SCHNEIDERMAN: Make every one of these phones something that can be incapacitated, essentially turning into nothing more than a paperweight.

HENN: Schneiderman says if you can cancel a credit card, you should be able to cancel a phone; transform it into a brick, and take away the incentive for thieves. But some in the technology community say simply adding a kill switch to smartphones could create more problems.

KEVIN MAHAFFEY: If there is a mechanism by which somebody can remotely disable and brick a device, we don't want that to become a target for malware.

HENN: Kevin Mahaffey is the co-founder of Lookout.

MAHAFFEY: So all of a sudden, if there were a way that you can cause of millions of devices to all of a sudden become inoperable, that can be a huge amount of money if somebody attacks that system.

HENN: Mahaffey's company, Lookout, is working with law enforcement groups to find a safe way to build in a kill switch on smartphones. And this week, Apple introduced a feature on iPhones that would render them inoperable if thieves try to turn off tracking programs without using a password. That feature won't roll out until this fall, but Schneiderman called it a step in the right direction.

Steve Henn, NPR News, Silicon Valley. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.