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Can a 'kill switch' cut the rate of smartphone theft?

| Thursday, Feb. 27, 2014, 5:39 p.m.

There are so many things technology does to make our lives better. There's also some things technology could do to make our lives better but for some reason doesn't.

Here's an interesting example. Did you know that, even as crime overall in the United States has been dropping during the past 15 years, smartphone theft has reached epidemic proportions?

It's not surprising. Those things can cost $600 and are easy to swipe, conceal and transport. The theft numbers are amazing. The FCC in 2012 released a survey of smartphone theft. Among the stats: Forty percent of the robberies in New York City involved smartphones. And many thieves, of course, are after something more valuable than the phone — your personal information, access to your banking and email, and other deviousness.

So what are we going to do about it? That's the question some consumers have been asking for years, and it seems as if there's a simple solution: adding a feature to allow owners to render a stolen device useless via a blocking device — the so-called “kill switch.”

Lawmakers in California, spurred by the state attorney general, have been considering a mandatory kill switch bill. That proposal caught the attention of the industry; California is such a big market it would make a de facto national standard. In the meantime, a group of senators in Washington have proposed a similar bill, the Smartphone Theft Prevention Act.

The idea of both is that, once it's understood that stolen phones were probably unusable, the market for hot phones would be at least trimmed. (Phones could still be stolen for parts, I guess.)

A consortium of phone companies campaigned against these laws. One argument: That kill switches could be hacked — there's even the specter raised of Homeland Security phones being bricked en masse in a terrorist attack. Leaving aside the silly latter part of the argument, I'm still not convinced this is an issue. It might be true that someone wanting to do you mischief might take the time to brick your phone out of spite, but that should be as preventable as any other type of hack, right? And, seriously, the chances of that happening are a lot less than that of the phone getting stolen. And there certainly isn't a similar financial incentive.

Another argument against the kill switch is that a better solution would be a national database of stolen cellphones, which buyers would presumably check before a secondhand phone is bought. This has supposedly been available for years, but you don't hear much about it.

As the momentum for the kill switch has grown, execs at a few companies have begun to tone down their opposition and begun to cautiously advocate for universal adoption. I understand that there's a complex web of manufactures and mobile providers involved here. That said, I'm going to go out on a limb and suggest that perhaps the corporate lack of enthusiasm on the subject is that they make a lot of money from folks having to replace all those stolen phones.

E-mail Kim Komando at techcomments@usatoday.com.

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