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21 Jun, 2014 00:02

​Google, Microsoft will protect smartphones from thieves with ‘kill switches’

​Google, Microsoft will protect smartphones from thieves with ‘kill switches’

Google and Microsoft are planning to incorporate a “kill switch” technology into the next versions of their smartphone operating systems as evidence mounts that such features actively deter thieves.

Under growing pressure from public officials, the companies have said they will add mechanisms to remotely disable their devices, similar to one introduced by Apple last year.

READ MORE: ‘Kill switch’ smartphone bill dead on arrival in California Senate

Google will add a “factory reset protection solution” to its next Android system, the company said in statement Friday. Microsoft’s Vice President for US Government Affairs Fred Humphries in the meantime said his company will offer a new anti-theft mechanism in the next system update for the phones which operate its software, including those made by Nokia.

“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,” said Humphries in a blog post.

Apple has already introduced a kill-switch for its iPhones, adding an ‘activation lock’ and ‘delete phone’ options to its Find My iPhone app back in September 2013. As a result, thefts of Apple smartphones in New York fall by 19 percent in the first five months of 2014 and by 38 percent and 24 percent in San Francisco and London respectively.

In the meantime some experts worry that software methods aren’t good enough, since hackers would be able to hijack a kill signal. And if a phone is turned off or in flight mode then it might not receive the kill signal at all. This is why some legislators are pushing for a hard kill switch which instead of rendering the phone unusable to an unauthorized user, would make it permanently unusable once stolen.

AFP Photo / Philippe Huguen

CTIA – The Wireless Association, a Washington based group that represents the wireless communications industry, said in April that it would offer technology next year that will give phone users the option of rendering their devises inoperable and wiping them of data in case of theft.

But the San Francisco District Attorney George Gascon and the Mayor of London Boris Johnson who lead the Secure Our Smart Phones Initiative group said that the offer is not good enough and fell short “of what is needed to effectively end the epidemic of smartphone theft” and that the technology should be enabled on all phone devices by default.

Gascon raised the problem that some users may not know how to use the feature and if it’s not pre-enabled people will “have to go on a scavenger hunt and figure out how to turn the technology on,” he said in a news conference Thursday in Manhattan.

Meanwhile the Washington Federal Communications Commission Chairman Tom Wheeler said that his agency will have recommendations out for kill-switch technology by the end of the year.

“It’s not enough” said Wheeler in reference to a system that works only if consumers decide to use it. “It’s time to have an automatic, common solution,” he added.

Both Representative Jose Serrano, a New York Democrat, and Senator Amy Klobuchar, a Minnesota Democrat, have introduced bills that would legally require phones sold in the US to include a kill-switch.

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

The Attorney General of New York Eric Schneiderman, who also leads the Secure Our Smart Phones Initiative, started a coalition of law enforcement officials to push the industry into adding the technology to their phones.

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

But tackling phone theft will be an uphill battle. Some 3.1 million mobile devices were stolen in the US in 2013 and in Europe one in three Europeans had a mobile device stolen or lost during the same year.