SAN FRANCISCO – Samsung Electronics, the world’s largest cellphone manufacturer, has proposed installing a built-in anti-theft measure known as a “kill switch” that would render stolen or lost phones inoperable, but the nation’s carriers have rejected the idea, according to San Francisco’s top prosecutor.
District Attorney George Gascon said Monday that AT&T Inc., Verizon Wireless, United States Cellular Corp., Sprint Corp. and T-Mobile US Inc. rebuffed Samsung’s proposal to preload its phones with Absolute LoJack anti-theft software as a standard feature.
The wireless industry says a kill switch isn’t the answer because it could allow a hacker to disable someone’s phone.
Gascon, New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman and other law enforcement officials have been demanding that manufacturers create kill switches to combat surging smartphone theft across the country.
Almost 1 in 3 U.S. robberies involve phone theft, according to the Federal Communications Commission. Lost and stolen mobile devices – mostly smartphones – cost consumers more than $30 billion last year, according to a study cited by Schneiderman in June.
Samsung officials told the San Francisco district attorney’s office in July that carriers were resisting kill switches, and prosecutors have recently reviewed emails between a senior vice president at Samsung and a software developer about the issue. One email in August said Samsung had pre-installed kill switch software in some smartphones ready for shipment, but carriers ordered their removal as a standard feature.
“These emails suggest that the carriers are rejecting a technological solution so they can continue to shake down their customers for billions of dollars in (theft) insurance premiums,” Gascon said. “I’m incensed.”
Samsung said it is cooperating with Gascon, Schneiderman and the carriers on an anti-theft solution but declined to comment specifically about the emails.
Although the popular Samsung Galaxy smartphones are shipped across the country without LoJack as a standard feature, users can pay a subscription fee for the service.
CTIA-The Wireless Association, a trade group for wireless providers, said it has been working with the FCC, law enforcement agencies and elected officials on a national stolen phone database scheduled to launch Nov. 30.
The CTIA says a permanent kill switch has serious risks, including potential vulnerability to hackers who could disable mobile devices and lock out not only individuals’ phones but also phones used by entities such as the Department of Defense, Homeland Security and law enforcement agencies.
“The problem is how do you trigger a kill switch in a secure manner and not be compromised by a third party and be subjected to hacking,” said James Moran, a security adviser with a United Kingdom wireless trade group.