Weapon Designed to Kill Off Phone Theft Proves Lethal

How an initiative started by California lawmakers has pulled the rug out from under thieves who created a huge market in stolen cellphones.

California’s new kill-switch law is only a few days old, but the effectiveness of the technology it mandates for preventing smartphone theft has already been demonstrated.

Kill switches allow phone owners to deactivate a lost or stolen phone, making the device utterly worthless, unless you’re looking for an expensive paperweight.

California’s law, which went into effect July 1, mandates that all new smartphones sold in the Golden State have a default kill switch. But the law is having an impact nationwide because phone manufacturers started putting in place the change, and not just for devices sold in California.

In 2013, 3.1 million phones were stolen in the United States, according to Consumer Reports. That number dropped to 2.1 million in 2014, a 32 percent decrease. In New York, smartphone thefts dropped 16 percent. In San Francisco, phone thefts have been reduced by 22 percent.

“This is validation of what we knew to be the case all along, that if you remove the value of a stolen device you remove the incentive to engage in this violent behavior,” San Francisco District Attorney George Gascón, a proponent of the anti-theft protections, told Re/code. “This wasn’t just a local problem, this was a global epidemic, and it seems we’re poised to see a dramatic reduction in violent robberies as this technology is implemented ubiquitously.”

Gascón was part of an effort to push phone manufacturers to implement opt-out kill switches as a default setting, rather than an opt-in feature.

“Smartphone users have been able to remotely wipe and secure their devices for years, but few actually did, so thieves were willing to take their chances in pursuit of nabbing an unsecured phone,” Forbes said. “But the more phones that come out of the box with an opt-out kill switch, the lower a thief’s chances of profit are — leading to, in theory, the thefts disappearing altogether.”

Apple made Activation Lock, its kill-switch opt-out, on any phones that run iOS 8. Before, Activation Lock was an opt-in feature. The iPhone 6 and 6 Plus both have opt-out kill switches. Android has been slower to follow suit. Android implemented a kill switch last fall, but it’s an opt-in, “which was helpful for informed users but did little to deter thieves, who operate based on odds,” Forbes explained.

Cellphone manufacturers, including: Apple, BlackBerry, Google, HTC, Huawei, LG, Motorola, Microsoft, Samsung and ZTE, have agreed to implement the kill-switch protections nationwide, Re/code said.

“We’re already witnessing a worldwide reduction in smartphone robberies following the limited implementation of this technology,” Gascon added.

What are your thoughts on the smartphone kill switches? Share your comments below or on our Facebook page.

Stacy Johnson

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