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

Cell phone theft is one of the biggest crimes in the U.S. Some people think a kill switch could be the answer. See cell phone pictures.
Adam Gault/Photodisc/Getty Images

Shoved to the ground by two burly strangers, San Francisco resident Dalton Huckaby's iPhone 5 is stolen. A month later, too scared to display his new smartphone in public, he takes hours to reply to texts or phone calls. He won't make contact until he and his smartphone are tucked safely inside his home [source: Wollan].

In 2012, an estimated 1.6 million Americans had their smartphones stolen. The thefts were particularly common in larger cities. For example, about half of the robberies reported in San Francisco included smartphones [source: Consumer Reports]. About 40 percent of the reported robberies in every major metropolitan area, including Washington, D.C., and New York, N.Y., involve the theft of smartphones [source: Metropolitan Police Dept. DC].


Why are smartphones thief-bait? Stealing smartphones is a profitable enterprise. For each device sold on the black market, a thief can gain hundreds of dollars; the more valuable the device, the greater the payoff.

iPhones usually garner the highest payouts, a practice that's led some to dub the theft "Apple picking" [source: Pepitone]. Others simply call it an iCrime [source: Wollan]. And to add insult to injury, if your smartphone isn't password-protected, thieves can access private information that can lead to identity theft [source: MPDC].

To help stem the rising tide of smartphone thefts -- and the rise in injuries or deaths reported as a result of the crimes -- consumer watchdogs, prosecutors, legislators and law enforcement from more than a dozen states formed Secure Our Smartphones (S.O.S) in 2013 to urge smartphone carriers to take action [source: Gogolak].

The group's primary proposal involves adding "kill switch" software to smartphones to render them useless when stolen. But the CTIA, an industry trade group representing mobile carriers, has refused to comply with the request and insists more danger than good would come of it.

From a consumer's point of view, it seems simple. If smartphones are so likely to become stolen, then shouldn't they come equipped with a permanently disabling "kill switch" that renders them useless if they fall into the wrong hands? Mobile carriers say there are big risks to doing that.


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.
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?


Preventing Smartphone Theft

One of the best ways to prevent smartphone theft is to keep an alert hand on the device at all times. Don't loosely hold your smartphone as you lollygag down the sidewalk. Keep a firm grip and keep it close to your body. Better yet, leave it concealed in an interior pocket. This way, you can avoid a seasoned smartphone thief's most popular tactic: Slapping a victim on the back of the head, sending the smartphone flying into the air and snatching it before it hits the ground.

In case of theft, you'll want to know your smartphone's serial number and model number. Both are usually listed under the "settings" tab or imprinted on the back of the device. Importantly, smartphones also have a unique device identification number, known as an International Mobile Equipment Identifier (IMEI).


The IMEI is a 15- to 17-digit numerical code assigned to each smartphone by manufacturers. It allows carriers to remotely disable your smartphone when you contact them [source: MPDC].

The carrier can also enter your smartphone's IMEI into a national database that tracks stolen smartphones. All major carriers in the U.S. participate in this database, as do a few international carriers. This database feeds into the Global System for Mobile (GSM) and Universal Mobile Telecommunications Service networks [source: Rouse].

To learn your smartphone's IMEI, dial *#06# and the number will appear on the screen. If your phone is an older model, this may not work. However, you can also turn your phone off, remove the battery and record the IMEI under the label. Be sure to keep the information in a different location than your smartphone [source: Wollan].

You should also install a tracking app. For iPhones, you can try Apple's Find My iPhone. Or, if you have iOS 7 installed on your iPhone, you can remotely launch Activation Lock if your phone is stolen. This technology prevents thieves from erasing your phone's data or disabling location apps. It also prevents thieves from restoring or reactivating your smartphone [source: Friedman]. For Android smartphones, there are several third-party apps including Where's My Droid and Lookout [source: Wollan].

If your smart phone is stolen, call the police and give them the serial and IMEI numbers and any locations identified by your phone's tracking app.


Lots More Information

Author's Note: Why don't carriers want a 'kill switch' for stolen phones?

When I first considered this question, I thought, "Yes, why don't they?" I had a phone stolen several years ago, before phones were smart and before tracking apps were the norm. It wasn't possible to brick the phone, even when I reported it to the carrier, so I tracked the incoming and outgoing calls through my phone bill. I tracked a landline to a particular address and alerted police. They weren't as impressed with my detective skills as I was, and my phone was never recovered. I was, however, eventually able to suspend the phone's service -- but only after I paid the bill for the calls the thief made.

Related Articles

  • Ben-Achour, Sabri. "Why are cell phone carriers rejecting the 'kill switch'?" Marketplace. Dec. 11, 2013 (Dec. 12, 2013). http://www.marketplace.org/topics/business/why-are-cell-phone-carriers-rejecting-kill-switch
  • Consumer Reports. "With 1.6 Million Smart Phones Stolen Last Year, Efforts Underway to Stem Losses." June 3, 2013. (Dec. 9, 2013) http://www.consumerreports.org/cro/news/2013/06/with-1-6-million-smart-phones-stolen-last-year-efforts-under-way-to-stem-the-losses/index.htm
  • Goglak, E.C. "Smartphone Makers Pressed to Address Growing Theft Problem." The New York Times. June 13, 2013. (Dec. 6, 2013) http://bits.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/06/13/smartphone-makers-pressed-to-address-growing-theft-problem/
  • Pepitone, Julianne. "Would a Smartphone 'Killswitch' Deter Thieves?" CNN. June 13, 2013. (Dec. 6, 2013) http://money.cnn.com/2013/06/13/technology/mobile/smartphone-theft/
  • Ribeiro, John. "Carriers Say Smartphone 'Kill Switch' Would be a Juicy Target for Hackers." PC World. Nov. 21, 2013. (Dec. 6, 2013) http://www.pcworld.com/article/2065820/carriers-say-smartphone-kill-switch-attractive-to-hackers.html
  • Rouse, Margaret. "IMEI." WhatIs. June 2012. (Dec. 6, 2013) http://whatis.techtarget.com/definition/IMEI-International-Mobile-Equipment-Identity
  • Schwartz, Mathew. "The Trouble with Smartphone Kill Switches." Information Week. Aug. 13, 2013. (Dec. 11, 2013) http://www.informationweek.com/mobile/the-trouble-with-smartphone-kill-switches/d/d-id/1111143
  • The District of Columbia Metropolitan Police Department. "Stolen Smart Phone? Brick It." (Dec. 6, 2013) http://mpdc.dc.gov/page/stolen-smart-phone-brick-it
  • Warranty Week. "Mobile Phone Insurance Market Shares." Nov. 14, 2013. (Dec. 6, 2013) http://www.warrantyweek.com/archive/ww20131114.html
  • Wollan, Malia. "Outsmarting Smartphone Thieves." The New York Times. May 8, 2013. (Dec. 6, 2013) http://www.nytimes.com/2013/05/09/technology/personaltech/outsmarting-smartphone-thieves.html