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Why don't carriers want a 'kill switch' for stolen phones?

        Tech | Cell Phones

How a Kill Switch Could Impact National Security
Apple SVP of Worldwide Marketing, Phil Schiller, speaks about security features of the new iPhone 5S during a product announcement in 2013.
Apple SVP of Worldwide Marketing, Phil Schiller, speaks about security features of the new iPhone 5S during a product announcement in 2013.
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

The S.O.S coalition's call for action includes having preloaded kill switch software on every smartphone, rather than leaving the impetus to individual manufacturers and carriers. Currently, a consumer must report a stolen smartphone to a carrier and request to have it disabled. Likewise, consumers must either install after-market tracking apps or rely on manufacturers to offer remote-kill features built into their operating systems. With a kill switch installed, you would send a special text message to your phone which would make it inoperable if it was stolen [source: Ben-Achour].

But according to a U.S. Federal Communications filing made by CTIA, a kill switch would be an attractive target to hackers. Hackers could find out the kill message on a phone and disable it remotely. This is a particular risk for people who work in defense or law enforcement. Further, phones could be permanently disabled if multiple messages were sent [sources: Schwartz, Ribeiro]. The idea that hackers could worm their way into a smartphone's code and use it to bypass built-in safeguards like logins and passwords is alarming.

Kill switch proponents, however, are quick to blame the CTIA's reluctance to adopt the technology on another reason: profit. Smartphone carriers offer stolen-phone coverage through consumer insurance programs. The top four wireless carriers in the U.S. -- AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile and Verizon -- will bill an estimated $7.8 billion in protection plan premiums in 2013 [source: Warranty Week].

Some of the individual mobile carriers have said they are not against a kill switch, per se, but they want one that works on every type of phone and will have safeguards against hackers – which will take time to develop [source: Ben-Achour].

In the meantime, what can you do to protect yourself against theft?


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