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Kill switch mandate can stem phone thefts

The smartphones that have revolutionized daily life are much coveted by thieves. A wave of smartphone theft and related criminal activity has surged across the nation, and law enforcement leaders and politicians are crying out for a response.

Consumer Reports estimates that 3.1 million smartphones were stolen in the United States last year.

Each theft is not only an intrusion that results in property loss but also risks identity theft or violence. Police have reported as many as 40 percent of the robberies in cities across the country involve the ubiquitous and valuable handheld devices.

The thefts are being driven by the simple fact that lost or stolen phones can be cleaned and reactivated for use, often abroad. Thieves have grown adept at this.

To choke off the wave of crime, a technological fix must be found that will stop the conversion of a stolen smartphone into a reusable one. Given all the innovation that has gone into these gizmos, there should be enough brainpower to figure out how to switch them off when they’re stolen or lost.

A movement gathering steam with police chiefs, attorneys general and lawmakers insists that phone makers and service providers install a kill switch in every smartphone. This attractive idea would allow the user to make a stolen phone instantly inoperable and thereby reduce or eliminate the incentive for stealing it. The technology would, in theory, operate by sending a message to the phone. A number of models already have something along these lines.

But users are complacent about security features, and not all the available precautions are widely used. Some lawmakers have called for stronger measures; the Smartphone Theft Prevention Act would require all phones sold in the United States to include kill-switch technology that would allow the consumer to wipe personal data off a lost or stolen phone, render it inoperable and prevent it from being reactivated by anyone but the owner.

The industry has opposed the mandatory kill switch on the grounds that it could bring security risks, such as allowing a hacker or cyberwarrior to use the disabling message to shut down customers en masse. In April, however, the industry offered a voluntary initiative, pledging that all new models after July 2015 would offer a baseline security tool to erase personal data, render the phone inoperable to an unauthorized user, keep it from being reactivated and permit the inoperability to be reversed by the owner.

Washington, D.C., Police Chief Cathy Lanier chided the phone makers and wireless carriers recently, saying they “are not innocent in this whole game. They are making a profit off this” when consumers buy replacement phones. Perhaps it is time to invest a little more of those profits on a good solution; after all, industry is where innovation is found. Smartphone manufacturers and service providers take note: Consumers, law enforcement and politicians are eager for action. The thieves must be locked out.