The use of “kill switches” to prevent theft are nothing new. Many car stereo and amp units require a code to be usable after they’ve been disconnected from the battery, and you can buy switches that are either hidden or require a code that must be activated before the car can be started. Right now, you can remotely lock a stolen mobile device, but a thief can simply do a hard reset to wipe it clean, then use or sell it. What would help deter theft is a kill switch that would render the device unusable, even if a hard reset is performed.
New York- and San Francisco-based lawmakers are trying to get mobile device vendors to implement such kill switches, but they’re facing opposition from that familiar obstacle: the carriers. San Francisco district attorney George Gascón, while working with Samsung on a kill switch agreement, says that carriers including AT&T, Verizon, T-Mobile, and Sprint, who have to approve pre-loaded software, have rejected the kill switch concept. Based on emails between a Samsung exec and a developer that he saw, he says that carriers fear that a theft deterrent like a kill switch would eat into the profits they make from selling anti-theft insurance. Nice.
The public argument that carriers make against kill switches is that a malicious third party could take control of the feature and use it to disable phones. They even brought up the spectre of disabling the phones of Defense officials or police officers. They also claim that deactivated phones couldn’t be subsequently reactivated if found, which isn’t true in the case of Apple’s “Activation Lock” feature.
This isn’t the first time that carriers have stood in the way of progress because it cut into their business. It wasn’t all that long ago that they made it difficult or inconvenient to put apps on phones, saying that they could be threats to the network. The success of the iPhone changed all that; what change would it take to get carriers on board with kill switches?