'Kill switch' debate turns to control after wireless industry offers an anti-theft tool

After resisting calls for a “kill switch” inside smartphones, CTIA, the wireless industry group, and major industry players wisely reversed course and announced this week they would voluntarily add one.

CTIA calls it ”a baseline anti-theft tool that is preloaded or downloadable on wireless smartphones” and says it will be available by July of next year. It will allow an owner to wipe data, make a device inoperable and restart it if recovered.

Signing on to the deal are major handset makers like Apple, Samsung and HTC as well as the chief wireless companies such as AT&T and Verizon. FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler praised the tool.

In a column in December, I wrote the wireless industry was in a no-win position as public officials mounted a campaign calling for an anti-theft tool as smartphone thefts climbed in cities nationwide.

Leading the charge have been New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman and George Gascon, the San Francisco District Attorney. There is a bill in Congress that would require all phones to have a kill switch but it hasn’t progressed. State Sen. Mark Leno has a bill that would require a kill switch for phones sold in California.

Even with CTIA’s proposal, the fight is far from over.

The wireless industry’s tool is similar to Apple’s Activation Lock in that it requires a user to voluntarily turn it on.

But what Schneiderman and others want is a kill switch built into the phone that doesn’t require the user to activate.

The officials issued a statement about the CTIA proposal:

We strongly urge CTIA and its members to make their anti-theft features enabled by default on all devices, rather than relying on consumers to opt-in. The industry also has a responsibility to protect its consumers now and not wait until next year.

Bloomberg Businessweek’s Joshua Brustein writes that the next area of debate is about control:

Phone companies have voiced various objections to the idea of kill switches—hackers could exploit them; there are better solutions —but they also want to make sure they’re in charge of their own destiny. There’s nothing like proposed legislation to get the voluntary commitments flowing, and that seems to be the case here.

Above: An iPhone 5s. (AP Photo/Andy Wong, File).

Michelle Quinn Michelle Quinn (127 Posts)

Michelle Quinn is a Business Columnist at the San Jose Mercury News. Prior to her current role, she was the Silicon Valley correspondent at Politico covering tech policy and politics. She has also covered the tech industry at the Los Angeles Times and the San Francisco Chronicle. She was a blogger for the New York Times.