It sounds tough to argue with: a setting on smartphones and tablets that lets owners disable a lost or stolen device remotely. If thieves know stolen mobile gadgets will quickly become about as useful as a brick and tough to resell, they may decide it isn’t worth the effort. Samsung (005930:KS) has developed just such a feature for its mobile devices, but the Korean company has hit a snag. U.S. wireless carriers won’t sell their products if they come loaded with the disabling feature.
More than 1.6 million Americans were robbed of their mobile devices last year, according to the Secure Our Smartphones Initiative, a coalition of law enforcement officials and consumer advocates who support the incorporation of kill switches. “This is a growing epidemic affecting all corners of our nation and accounting for a majority of the robberies in our cities,” the coalition, led by New York State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman and San Francisco District Attorney George Gascón, said in a statement. The group says that by rendering theft pointless, kill-switch technology makes mobile users safer.
Verizon Wireless, AT&T (T), Sprint (S), T-Mobile (TMUS), and U.S. Cellular (USM) don’t see it as such a clear win. For carriers, the technology would add an enormous customer-service burden. Troubleshooting for mobile devices often falls to the wireless stores where customers bought them, and setting up a kill switch—or reactivating a phone that’s been deactivated by mistake—can be a challenge for lay users and time-consuming for staffers. The carriers and their trade group, known as CTIA, say they’re taking other steps to reduce theft. “CTIA and its member companies worked hard over the last year to help law enforcement with its stolen phone problem,” CTIA Vice President Jamie Hastings said in a statement.
CTIA launched a national phone-tracking database on Nov. 30. The trade group also advocates for heavier legal penalties on convicted traffickers of stolen devices. Sprint spokeswoman Crystal Davis says her company cooperates in undercover investigations and sues identified phone traffickers. Sprint is pursuing technological innovations other than kill-switch features, she says. Torod Neptune, a spokesman for Verizon Wireless, says his company would support a remote kill switch for mobile devices as long as it doesn’t mean any added costs. The other wireless companies referred requests for comment to CTIA.
Lawrence Pingree, research director for market researcher Gartner (IT), says wireless companies see an all-out push against theft as too expensive. “The main goal for carriers is to keep support costs low and encourage subscribership, so antitheft technology could cause support nightmares,” he says. “Especially with Android, since there is much fragmentation in the phone market and not all phones would support the feature.” And to put it bluntly, he says, “Carriers also profit from theft—for example, insurance premiums and activation charges.” In letters sent to the five carriers on Dec. 10, Schneiderman warned that “further scrutiny may be required” to review their rejection of Samsung’s kill switch.
One mobile-device maker has managed to get smartphones and tablets armed with kill switches onto carriers’ shelves: Apple (AAPL). The latest version of its mobile operating system lets users remotely enable what it calls an activation lock. While Forrester Research (FORR) senior analyst Tyler Shields notes that Apple’s software isn’t necessarily hack-proof, the company’s hardware is in high demand and it largely handles its own customer service, which means carriers don’t have to shoulder those costs.
For its part, Samsung says it takes smartphone theft seriously and is trying to enhance device security in other ways, which it wouldn’t detail. The company is working with the Secure Our Smartphones coalition, says company spokeswoman Ashley Wimberly. “We will continue to work with them and our wireless carrier partners towards our common goal of stopping smartphone theft.”