California’s embrace of anti-theft technology in smartphones puts a squeeze on thieves

08/27/2014 5:46 PM

08/27/2014 5:46 PM

It will soon get a lot harder for smartphone thieves to sell stolen iPhones, Samsung Galaxy phones and Windows phones on the black market.

A bill signed Monday by Gov. Jerry Brown of California will require that all smartphones sold in the state after July 2015 include a kill switch, which lets an owner remotely deactivate a phone after it has been stolen.

If the history of security technology is any indication, the kill switch could have a substantial effect on phone theft. The introduction of sophisticated mechanisms such as GPS tracking and engine immobilizer systems that make it nearly impossible to start a car without its ignition key, for example, has led to a steady decline in car theft in the United States.

The FBI reported a 3.2 percent decrease in motor vehicle thefts in the first half of 2013 compared with the first half of 2012. In 2009, car theft dropped nearly 17 percent from the year before. And in New York City, auto theft has gone out of fashion. Last year, the city recorded 7,400 reported auto thefts. In 1990, 147,000 autos were stolen.

Some figures also suggest that home burglaries dropped after home security systems became more widely adopted. A study by the Rutgers School of Criminal Justice found a link between a decrease in home burglaries in Newark, N.J., between 2001 and 2005 and an increase in the number of homes installing burglar alarms.

Police say the kill switch should make it more difficult for criminals to resell stolen smartphones, their typical aim. Organized gangs with technical know-how often snatch phones from victims, wipe existing data and resell the phones online or even in flea markets.

The kill switch is a strong disincentive to that illicit business. Once the switch is triggered, the only way a phone can be reactivated is with a correct password or personal identification number.

There is already some indication that the switch is effective. Cellphone theft appears to be dropping after the introduction of a kill switch from Apple for its iPhone, the best-selling smartphone in the country. Apple’s iPhone has offered kill switch technology since last September, and law enforcement statistics for several major cities show a significant decline in thefts of devices after the introduction of the feature.

Comparing data in the six months before and after Apple released its anti-theft feature, police said, iPhone thefts in San Francisco dropped 38 percent. In London, they fell 24 percent.

That is a big shift from previous trends. About 3.1 million devices were stolen in the United States in 2013, nearly double the 1.6 million stolen in 2012, according to Consumer Reports.

Unlike laws already on the books in some other states, the California measure requires the kill switch to activate automatically as soon as a phone is turned on. Retailers who sell phones that do not comply with the law will be subject to fines of as much as $2,500 a sale.

Although the new law applies only to California, it will probably push the handset makers to install the tool on all their new smartphones. Samsung has already added a kill switch to the newest version of its top-selling Galaxy S phone and is expected to add it to others in the coming months.

George Gascón, San Francisco’s district attorney, has urged cellphone businesses for years to help fight theft with smarter technology to thwart criminals. But only recently did many of the industry’s biggest players, including AT&T, Google and Microsoft, say they supported the idea, amid talk of a bill that would require the feature in smartphones by law.

Google is adding a kill switch to the next version of its Android smartphone operating system — used by many phone makers — and Microsoft said it would do something similar with its Windows Phone software.

Critics of the anti-theft law, including CTIA, a trade group that represents the wireless industry, have raised several concerns, among them that the kill switch solution could create more security risks. The association noted that hackers could potentially hijack smartphones and disable them for customers, including the phones used by officials in the Defense Department and in law enforcement.

Those concerns, said Kevin Mahaffey, chief technology officer of Lookout, a mobile security company, are “extremely valid.”

But, he said, the kill switch solution so far, at least the one that Apple offers, is a safe and effective tool to stop casual thieves.

He added that he was optimistic that the phone companies would also strengthen their own anti-theft tools over the next few years.

“We do think that all these technologies coming together can really put a big dent in the phone theft problem,” he said.

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