Is it time for the cellphone industry to cave and provide a "kill switch" in all mobile devices?
AT&T, Verizon and the other carriers are under growing pressure to install the switch, a technical fix making cellphones useless to robbers.
This week, Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., wrote to the companies asking them to do more to stop phone thefts. The carriers had until Dec. 31 to get back to New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman explaining why they rejected a Samsung proposal to install such a technology. As of my deadline, the New York AG's office told me it had received some carrier responses "but are in ongoing conversations and won't be sharing them at this time."
And state Sen. Mark Leno, D-San Francisco, has promised legislation this year in Sacramento requiring a kill switch on smartphones in California. Given the size of the Golden State's market, a state law could force the industry's hand nationwide.
"It's a PR disaster for the carriers," said David Onek, a criminal justice expert and former San Francisco police commissioner. "I hope they come to their senses and make the changes voluntarily. ... I can't think of another public safety problem that could be solved so easily by technology."
CTIA-The Wireless Industry was not available for comment but most industries typically oppose technical mandates. And in the past, the wireless carriers have raised concerns that a kill switch could be used by hackers. In addition, carriers have worked with the Federal Communications Commission to create a mobile device registry so that registered phones could not be reactivated to make phone calls.
But San Francisco District Attorney George Gascon and other officials have accused the industry of protecting the revenue it generates when people replace stolen phones, or from their theft insurance business, which is apparently lucrative.
That doesn't seem likely to me. The revenue may be considerable, but I expect the carriers would rather not be an easy punching bag for state, local and federal officials.
You probably have heard the statistics: One in three robberies in the U.S. involve a mobile device, with an estimated 1.2 million people in the U.S. victimized in 2012 by mobile device theft. Officials such as Gascon argue that smartphone thefts are remaking urban crime, with as many as 50 percent of robberies in San Francisco involving mobile communication devices. Some of the victims are hurt, and many are traumatized in the process.
The reason is the incentives: Smartphones in the U.S. can be resold for up to $400, and many are shipped overseas where they can go for more than $1,000, says Gascon's office, which has taken the lead nationally to fight to turn the cellphone into a "brick" if stolen.
"Unless you remove the financial incentive, the epidemic will continue," said Alex Bastian, an assistant district attorney in San Francisco.
But would it work?
I recently had my laptop stolen and, except for the inconvenience, the experience didn't have a big impact on my life. All my information is locked safely in the cloud. And the device was encrypted, meaning the thief couldn't use it ever. It gave me pleasure to think of the robber opening up the clam shell and futilely trying to get the laptop working.
But does that mean the thief and cohorts will rethink whether it's worth stealing laptops? Probably not, unless all devices were encrypted.
That's the theory behind the nationwide kill switch.
Bastian reminded me of how car break-ins in the 1990s were high because burglars were after car radios. But car manufacturers responded with anti-theft designs and detachable radio faceplates, and, consequently, burglaries went down. Debit cards and credit cards essentially have kill switches; we call our banks to cancel them once they are missing.
But the company's solution requires users to opt in. That means a lot of people won't bother to do it. As Gascon said, "This leaves iPhone users at risk as thieves cannot distinguish between those devices that have the feature enabled and those that do not." He supports giving people the ability to opt out if they don't want the kill switch.
Apple controls the operating system and device. Samsung, which doesn't, apparently went to carriers with proposed solutions but was rebuffed.
For the carriers, it's time to change course before it's too late. Offer a quick, strong pro-consumer safety response and get out of the headlines.
Contact Michelle Quinn at 510-394-4196 and firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her at twitter.com/michellequinn.