Wireless industry rejects Samsung's proposal for a smartphone 'kill switch'

US carriers say software would help hackers while others point to theft insurance profits

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 20 November, 2013, 9:33pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 20 November, 2013, 9:33pm


Samsung, the world's largest mobile phone 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 biggest US carriers have rejected the idea, according to San Francisco's top prosecutor.

District Attorney George Gascon said that AT&T, Verizon Wireless, United States Cellular, Sprint and T-Mobile had rebuffed Samsung's proposal to preload its phones with Absolute LoJack anti-theft software as a standard feature.

The wireless industry - some of whose members sell theft insurance to customers - said a kill switch was not 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 theft, with almost 1 in 3 US robberies now involving a phone. Lost and stolen mobile devices cost consumers more than US$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 reviewed e-mails between a senior vice-president at Samsung and a software developer. One e-mail in August said Samsung had pre-installed kill switch software in some smartphones ready for shipment, but carriers ordered their removal.

"These e-mails 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. ... This is a solution that has the potential to end the victimisation of their customers."

Samsung declined to comment about the e-mails.

"We are working with the leaders of the Secure Our Smartphones (SOS) Initiative to incorporate the perspective of law enforcement agencies," said Samsung spokeswoman Jessica Redman.

Although LoJack is not a standard feature on the Samsung Galaxy smartphone, users can pay a subscription fee for the service.

CTIA-The Wireless Association, a trade group for wireless providers, said it had been working with agencies on a national stolen phone database scheduled to be launched at the end of this month.

The CTIA said a permanent kill switch had 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 Defence, Homeland Security and law enforcement agencies.