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New York AG to cellular carriers: Why was antitheft switch killed?

The attorney general pens letters to the major US wireless carriers and says "it's disturbing that the nation's leading smartphone carriers knowingly dismissed technology that could save lives."

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

Way back when, street smarts meant keeping an eye out, being aware of your surroundings, and not walking on sketchy looking streets at night. While these safeguards still work, there's now a new precaution to add to the list: don't take out your cell phone in public, even during the day.

Smartphone robberies have sharply risen in the US over the last couple of years and crime reports show the statistics look to get even worse. That's why several lawmakers around the country have come together in the Secure Our Smartphone initiative to urge phone makers to include a kill switch in their devices. But, it appears that US wireless carriers aren't having it.

New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, who is co-chair of SOS, wrote letters (PDF) on Tuesday to the CEOs of five major US cellular carriers asking for information on why they made the decision to reject antitheft technology in smartphones. He questioned their rationale and whether they were putting profit before safety. Schneiderman followed up these letters with public statements on Wednesday.

"For the past six months, the Secure Our Smartphone Initiative has called on the industry to put safety before profits and stop this violent epidemic. Considering this, it's disturbing that the nation's leading smartphone carriers knowingly dismissed technology that could save lives," Schneiderman said in a statement. "My office will determine whether these companies allowed their business relationships to influence their ability to take immediate action against theft."

Schneiderman's complaint boils down to kill switch technology that Samsung was working on to pre-load into its devices. Essentially, this default feature would let smartphone owners "brick" their stolen devices remotely -- making them inoperable -- which could deter thieves from nabbing them in the first place.

Apparently, several US carriers said they would not support such a feature, including the carriers that Schneiderman wrote letters to -- Verizon, AT&T, T-Mobile, Sprint, and US Cellular. Schneiderman accused the carriers of being closely tied to the CTIA, the industry trade group that has publicly disagreed with the idea of a kill switch, and with insurance company Asurion, which provides cell phone theft and loss insurance to consumers.

According to the San Francisco Police Department, more than 50 percent of the robberies that occurred in the city in 2012 involved the theft of a smartphone -- what's referred to as "Apple Picking." Across the bay, in Oakland, the number is even more shocking with an estimated 75 percent of street robberies involving a cell phone, according to the East Bay Express. And, in New York City, nearly half of robberies have to do with smartphone theft.

Last month, a number of carriers said that a national "blacklist" of stolen devices was enough of a deterrent against smartphone robberies. The CTIA also said that a kill switch on devices would carry too many risks, as far as hacking and privacy.

CNET contacted AT&T, Verizon, US Cellular, Sprint, and T-Mobile for comment on the letters they received from Schneiderman. We did not hear back from AT&T, Sprint, or T-Mobile. A spokesperson from US Cellular said the company is "in the process of reviewing" the letter.

For its part, Verizon denied being against the antitheft switch.

"Verizon Wireless has said clearly and repeatedly that we would support a free and secure kill switch application for Android devices if and when a manufacturer provides such a solution. Reports that we rejected such a kill switch are inaccurate," Verizon spokeswoman Debra Lewis told CNET. "We will be responding to the attorney general to help him and the coalition better understand the facts."

Schneiderman is requesting that the five carriers respond to his letters with a "detailed explanation of their decision to reject Samsung's proposal and any other kill-switch technologies" by December 31.