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'Kill switch' sought as answer to phone theft epidemic

A group of law enforcement officials wants the smartphone industry to allow phones to be rendered useless if stolen or lost. The officials are hoping to get the feature into phones by next year.

New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman (center) stands with San Francisco District Attorney George Gascon and other officials in announcing the SOS initiative.
Roger Cheng/CNET

NEW YORK -- Megan Boken was on her phone checking in with her family as she got into her car when the line went silent.

The 23-year-old former volleyball star was back at her alma mater, St. Louis University, as part of an alumni-student game. A popular and likeable person, her parents assumed she ran into an old friend and got distracted.

Boken, however, had been shot twice and killed in a robbery. The only item missing: her phone.

Boken's father, Paul, and sister, Annie Palazzolo, shared the details of Megan's death, which occurred in August last year, as part of a Thursday press conference organized by New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman and San Francisco District Attorney George Gascon to push the mobile devices industry to help curb the "growing epidemic" of smartphone theft.

"If we can stop this, then we must stop it," Paul Boken said.

Schneiderman, Gascon, and a host of officials were on hand to announced the "Secure Our Smartphones" initiative, a collective of law enforcement officials, consumer advocates, and other politicians brought together with the common goal of combating the rising trend of phone theft. Details of the plan were reported earlier.

The group's top priority is to get the smartphone industry to put a "kill switch" in each smartphone, which when triggered would render the phone unusable. The idea is to cut off the market for stolen phones, which can easily be wiped and resold.

"It would brick the phone, as the kids say today," Schneiderman said. "Thieves have to know that there's no point of stealing a phone."

Schneiderman said that the technology to create a kill switch exists, and he hopes to get the feature into phones as early as next year.

The press conference kicked off a smartphone summit, which would include executives from Apple, Google/Motorola, Microsoft, and Samsung. The idea is to get the dialogue started on how the industry can implement a kill switch for phones. The idea is to agree upon a universal standard, keep it free for consumers, and let it be an opt-in program.

The technology is out there that can enable this, Scheiderman said.

The industry, which actually thrives on lost phones (because it requires consumers to purchase a new device), had been resistant to the idea. Gascon said that when he spoke to Apple about the possibility of a kill switch a year ago, he was told there wouldn't be one in the works. Similarly, the wireless carriers stonewalled him when he brought up the issue.

The officials are raising the issue now because smartphone thefts continue to rise even as other crimes fall. In San Francisco, 50 percent of robberies from 2012 involved a phone. In New York, 20 percent of all robberies involved the theft of a smartphone, up 40 percent from a year ago.

Gascon said he was encouraged by Apple's "activation lock" feature, which debuted alongside iOS 7 on Monday. While he said he needed more details about the feature, he said the activation locked marked a nice start, but didn't go far enough in the direction of a kill switch.

Father Paul Boken, and sister Annie Palazzolo, share Megan's story. Roger Cheng/CNET

"There are very few things that can be fixed by a technological solution," Gascon said. "This is one of them."

Both officials said that the industry now appears more willing to talk about the issue. The SOS initiative also promises to look at how the industry is exploring its options and how the economics of device theft have affected decisions made by those companies.

The U.S. wireless trade group CTIA, meanwhile, said it would attend the summit, and touted its own efforts to create a national database of registered mobile devices, which all of the carriers have agreed to work with.

"In addition to the numerous education campaigns on the tools, apps and features that are available to consumers now, we will discuss the stolen phone databases that are in effect today," Jamie Hastings, vice president of external and state affairs for CTIA, said in a statement.

The SOS coalition, however, said the database has not had an impact and doesn't prevent stolen phones that have been "jailbroken" to be reactivated and resold. The group said similar databases in the U.K. have failed to slow device thefts down.

Schneiderman said that while he preferred to collaborate with the companies, he was willing to use stronger force to coerce the industry into change.

"We intend to pursue this with every tool in our toolbox," he said.

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