Why are cell phone carriers rejecting the 'kill switch'?

Better be careful with that phone. Even though the 'kill switch' anti-theft technology exists, your cell phone provider might have banned it. 

Anthony Murphy works at a hair salon where his phone has been stolen, not once, but three times.  

“Yeah....” he says.  

“Two of those times I was actually able to get the phone back,” by using tracking apps like Find my iPhone. “I rode around in the police car looking for it and tracking down my phone, it was kinda fun actually.”

But one of those times, Murphy couldn’t track his phone because the phone was turned off. 

That’s why a group of Attorneys General want something called a “kill switch” -- where you can send a message to the phone rendering it permanently unusable, and thereby reducing the incentive to steal devices in general.  

According to New York attorney general Eric Schneiderman, Samsung came up with such a kill switch, but cellphone carriers including Sprint, AT&T, US Cellular, and T-Mobile have all allegedly barred it. 

In a letter, in which San Francisco District Attorney George Gascon is copied, the New York Attorney General asks for “further information relating to your decision to prohibit Samsung....from featuring a “kill-switch”...”

“We believe that one of the reasons they have done so is it really impacts the bottom line, the ability to sell insurance and other products they sell,” says San Francisco District Attorney George Gascon. In San Francisco, he says smartphone and tablet thefts account for 50 percent of all robberies.

Cell phone carriers say there has been some sort of misunderstanding.

“No we have not rejected the kill switch,” says Sprint spokeswoman Crystal Davis. “In fact we are working with a number of handset vendors to work on a kill switch type feature.”

A spokesperson for Verizon made the same claim. Both carriers say they want a kill switch that works for all phones, not just one brand. And Davis says having a different kill switch system for every type of phone is onerous. 

There is also a security concern, says Iain Gillott, head of iGR. 

“Nothing is ever as simple as it seems,” he says. “We read all day about accounts and passwords being hacked.”

He says a kill switch could be hacked too, and preventing abuse of that whether by hackers or by an ex, takes time. District Attorney Gascon isn’t buying it though, he and US Attorney General Eric Schneiderman want cell phone carriers to provide a written explanation by the end of the month.

About the author

Sabri Ben-Achour is a reporter for Marketplace, based in the New York City bureau. He covers Wall Street, finance, and anything New York and money related.

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