Call for Kill Switches Amid Smartphone Theft Epidemic

June 14, 2013 Updated: June 14, 2013

NEW YORK—Megan Boken would have turned 24 this June 15. Instead she became another victim in a staggering epidemic of smartphone theft.

Boken, who was a volleyball star at St. Louis University, was shot in broad daylight on Aug. 18 last year in St. Louis. She was on the phone with her mother when she was attacked.

Smartphone theft makes up 30-40 percent of all robberies nationwide, according to the Federal Communications Commission. 

In New York City, while other types of crime continue to decline, the number of smartphone robberies increased by 40 percent in 2012 from the previous year.

On the eve of Boken’s birthday on June 13, her father Paul Boken and her sister Annie Palazzolo, came to New York City. They stood by as New York State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman announced the start of an effort that could deal the smartphone thieves a crippling blow.

That blow would come in the form of a kill switch—a remotely activated function that would permanently disable a stolen smartphone. Once disabled, the phone could not be activated anywhere in the world, and it would become a useless commodity to anyone who steals and tries to resell the devices.

Schneiderman and San Francisco District Attorney George Gascón formed the Secure Our Smartphones (SOS) initiative in order to encourage smartphone makers to build a kill switch feature into every smartphone.

“It is totally unacceptable that we have an epidemic of crime that we believe can be eliminated if the technological fixes are put into place and smartphones are equipped to be disabled,” said Schneiderman.

Consumers paid $30 billion in replacement costs for stolen smartphones last year, according to Schneiderman. He added that in the Unites States 113 smartphones are stolen per minute.

The announcement came shortly before lawmakers were to convene with representatives from Apple, Microsoft, Google, Samsung, and Motorola to review possible solutions. The companies at the meeting represent 90% of the smartphone manufacturing market.

Gascón said that he began approaching smartphone manufacturers last year, but received little response initially. He met with Apple for the first time this January, but was told that a kill switch function was not forthcoming.

Apple announced a new version of its mobile iOS 7 software on June 10 with an Activation Lock feature, which could act as a theft deterrent.

“We’re not entirely sure what the functionality of this feature is,” said Gascón, referring to the Activation Lock. “Apple has been very vague as to what the system will do. We’re led to believe that it certainly will not be a kill switch.”

Schneiderman said that based on preliminary conversations, a smartphone kill switch is feasible. Although the SOS initiative intends to bring about the kill switch feature through cooperation, Schneiderman said that all means will be used, including investigative and legislative, to bring about the change.

On several occasions during the press conference Boken and Palazallo looked at each other reassuringly.

“The cellphone manufacturers and the cellphone providers have the ability to eliminate this market,” said Boken. “These steps will eliminate the financial incentive to steal a cellphone and will put an end to the crime. We can’t wait to put these in place.”

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