Phone Thieves Beware: Android, Nokia to Get Kill Switches

Google Inc. and Microsoft Corp. will incorporate a “kill switch” into the next versions of their smartphone operating systems as evidence mounts that such security measures may be deterring theft.

Mobile phone technology companies have faced pressure from public officials over the past year to add mechanisms for disabling the devices if they’re lost or stolen to help curb resale potential. More than 30 percent of robberies in major cities involve mobile phones, with smartphones often targeted because of their high value, according to the Federal Communications Commission.

Google, based in Mountain View, California, said in a statement today it will add a “factory reset protection solution” to its next version of Android. Microsoft’s Vice President for U.S. Government Affairs Fred Humphries said the Redmond, Washington-based company will offer new theft-deterrence mechanisms in an update for phones running its software, including those made by Nokia Oyj.

“With these additional features, we’re hopeful that technology -– as part of a broader strategy -– can help to further reduce incentives for criminals to steal smartphones in the first place,” Humphries said today in a blog post.

Plummeting Thefts

Following Apple Inc.’s release of a kill switch in September, thefts of iPhones in some cities “plummeted,” said New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, who helped start a coalition of law enforcement officials and consumer and public safety activists that has prodded the industry to add the theft-deterrence measures.

The Secure Our Smartphones Initiative group said in a report today that robberies involving Apple products in New York dropped 19 percent in the first five months of 2014 compared with the same period last year. In San Francisco and London, robberies involving Apple products dropped 38 percent and 24 percent, respectively, according to Schneiderman’s office.

“Today, the smartphone industry acknowledges that its wonderful products have been driving an international crime wave,” Schneiderman said in a news conference in Manhattan today. “That change in attitude has opened the door to great possibilities.”

Android’s Share

According to the analytics firm ComScore Inc., Android has a 52.5 percent market share in the U.S., while Apple has 41.4 percent and Microsoft has 3.3 percent.

Android phones will make up 80.2 percent of global shipments this year, according to the research firm IDC. Apple, with its iOS platform, will have a 14.8 percent share, IDC said.

CTIA-The Wireless Association, a Washington-based group representing the wireless industry, said in April that its members would offer technology next year that customers can opt to use that would remotely wipe data from their devices and render them inoperable when stolen.

At the time, Schneiderman and San Francisco District Attorney George Gascon, who also leads the smartphone initiative along with London Mayor Boris Johnson, said that the offer fell short “of what is needed to effectively end the epidemic of smartphone theft” and that anti-theft features should be enabled on all devices by default.

If the features are not pre-enabled, “you have to go on a scavenger hunt and figure out how to turn the technology on,” Gascon said today in Manhattan.

FCC Plans

At a meeting today in Washington, Federal Communications Commission Chairman Tom Wheeler said the agency will offer recommendations for kill-switch technology by year’s end.

“It’s not enough” to offer phone-disabling systems that work only if consumers choose to use them, Wheeler said. “It is time to have an automatic, common solution.”

U.S. Senator Amy Klobuchar, a Minnesota Democrat, introduced a bill in February that would require phones sold in the U.S. to include kill-switch type technology. Representative Jose Serrano, a New York Democrat, introduced an identical measure in the House.

“We’re never going to get to the end of incentives to steal unless the thieves know they’re stealing a brick,” Klobuchar said today at the meeting.