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Cellphone makers asked to create kill switch to deter thieves

By Terry Collins

Associated Press

LAST UPDATED: 12:33 p.m. HST, May 04, 2013

SAN FRANCISCO >> Disturbed by the nationwide epidemic of cellphone robberies and thefts, law enforcement officials across the country are looking to the wireless industry to help find a cure.

In San Francisco, where half the robberies were phone-related last year, District Attorney George Gascon is calling on major companies in nearby Silicon Valley to create new technology such as a "kill switch" to permanently and quickly disable stolen smart phones, making them worthless to thieves.

The prosecutor said he's recently had two discussions with Apple, maker of the popular iPhone, and has talked informally with Google, creator of the Android, the world's most popular operating smartphone platform. And, he also wants to meet with Samsung, the global smartphone market leader.

"We know that the technology can be developed to prevent this. This is more about social responsibility than economic gain," Gascon said.

The stakes are huge in the battle to combat cellphone theft. Nearly 175 million cellphones — mostly smartphones— have been sold in the U.S. in the past year and account for $69 billion in sales, according to IDC, a Massachusetts-based research firm.

And, now almost one out of three robberies nationwide involves the theft of a mobile phone, reports the Federal Communications Commission, which is coordinating formation this fall of a highly-anticipated national database system to track cellphones reported stolen.

The FCC is also working with officials in Mexico to crack down on the trafficking of stolen mobile phones that make it across the border.

San Francisco's district attorney is not the only high-ranking big-city law official seeking solutions.

In Washington D.C, where than 40 percent of its robberies in 2012 involved cellphones, police Chief Cathy Lanier said new federal laws are necessary to require all wireless providers to participate in the national stolen phones database, which is now done by choice.

"This is a voluntary agreement and the decision makers, heads of these (wireless) companies may transition over time and may not be in the same position five years from now." Lanier said in an email. "Something needs to be put in place to protect consumers."

On the theory that an inoperable phone is as useless as a "brick," Lanier and Mayor Vincent Gray also have urged residents who have their phones stolen to call their carriers and ask that the device be "bricked," or disconnected remotely to prevent resale on the black market.

In New York City, police have created a smartphone squad and partnered with Apple to track down stolen iPhones using the device's tracking number. For example, when an iPhone is stolen, Apple can report to police where the phone is located, even if it's been switched to a different carrier.

Police said the city's overall crime rate last year increased three percent mostly due to the more than 15,000 thefts of Apple-related products — a majority of them iPhones — said Paul Browne, a police spokesman.

"We would've had a one percent decrease in overall crime if you subtracted the Apple thefts," said Browne, adding that police have coined the phenomenon, "Apple-picking."

"We're trying to protect the orchard, so to speak," Browne said.

He added that police often use officers as decoys using their own iPhones to catch would-be robbers and stings to catch those who sell them on the black market. About 75 percent of the stolen devices stay within the city's five boroughs and some have been tracked down as far as the Dominican Republic.

In addition, New York Police Commissioner Ray Kelly has been working with U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer, D-New York, the FCC and CTIA, a trade group for wireless providers, on the national stolen phone database, along with six of the largest wireless companies.

Computer security expert Darren Hayes said law enforcement agencies, major corporations and the wireless industry have responded slowly to the spike in mobile phone thefts, leaving individuals as well as businesses vulnerable.

"Smartphones have become such an extension of our lives with all of our personal information on them and criminals recognizing its mass appeal," said Hayes, a professor and computer information systems program chair at Pace University in New York. "Professionally, there are some corporate network administrators who can control their company servers from their smartphone. While it's convenient, it could also put them at risk and could be the biggest source of data loss if they are stolen.

"We could see a potential nightmare emerging," Hayes said.

Jamie Hastings, a CTIA vice president, said the national stolen phone database is a step in the right direction and deserves a chance.

"To suggest that our members don't care about their consumers is completely inaccurate," Hastings said. "Our members are now focusing their energies on the database and achieving the start-up goal by November. The important thing at this stage is to allow our members to execute the plan that all of the stakeholders agreed upon."

The national database will be similar to a global database devised by GSMA, a wireless trade group based in the United Kingdom. Nearly 100 wireless companies across 43 countries participate in the overseas database for reported stolen mobile phones, said Claire Cranton, a GSMA spokeswoman in London.

But Gascon said a national network to track stolen phones comes up short and he is adamant that a kill switch is the best strategy to render a phone useless.

In March, he met with Apple's government liaison officer Michael Foulkes to talk about creating a kill switch technology. He described the encounter as "disappointing" but said a subsequent phone conversation with Apple's general counsel Bruce Sewell last month led to plans for talks that would include Apple's technical people.

Representatives of the tech giant did not respond to requests for comment.

"For me, a technical solution is probably better than just a criminal solution," Gascon said. "We can always create more laws, but look at how long it already takes to prosecute somebody at the expense of the taxpayers?

"If a phone can be inoperable at the flick of a switch, then a database will become moot."

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cojef wrote:
Never owned a smart-phone, only a cell on a pre-paid plan of $100. After the 1C is used, it stops operating, until additional funds are added.
on May 4,2013 | 12:43PM
mikethenovice wrote:
Disable the phone? Yeah. Just call the phone company to have them cut off the signal. Who needs that automatic kick in solution? Don't be lazy, make the call yourself.
on May 4,2013 | 06:13PM
mrluke wrote:
You're missing the point. The idea is to make it so convenient that somebody else does it for you. :-)
on May 4,2013 | 06:34PM
mikethenovice wrote:
What's the difference between convenient and lazy?
on May 5,2013 | 08:06AM
harley1 wrote:
Not a good idea. What if uncle Sam decides to kill all cell phones at once as a means of quelling dissent?
on May 4,2013 | 08:21PM
st1d wrote:
why kill it?

activate the gps signal instead and home in on the phone. send the police and when they are near have the phone ring. the police can then arrest the suspect.

stop the thieves and less thefts of phones will occur.

on May 4,2013 | 10:20PM
localguy wrote:
st1d - Hello. GPS can be turned off. You do know that right? You have looked at your phone's settings, GPS, Off or On? Posting rookies.
on May 4,2013 | 11:18PM
st1d wrote:
i'll try to keep it simple for you:

as soon as your phone is turned on, it pings the nearest towers and your location is triagulated.

the cell phone company constantly tracks your location, even if you've toggled the gps to the privacy mode.

by turning the phone's gps location toggle on, you allow a third party (google, navigation, maps) to collect and share your location data..

the cell carriers are constantly pinging your phone as you move around their networks. that's what makes the signal bars fluctuate as the phone displays strength of signal, at the same time the pinging reveals your phone's location to the carrier regardless of your gps toggle setting.

you also give up gps location privacy when you dial 911, and, the police can retrieve your location from cell carriers in emergencies with a warrant or with your permission.

on May 5,2013 | 03:20AM
al_kiqaeda wrote:
on May 5,2013 | 08:56AM
nodaddynotthebelt wrote:
I think you miss the whole point. Many phones do have gps but a lot of criminals know how to hack these phones. If it were as simple as locating the phone through gps then the whole point of a database would have been moot. The point is, to deter thieves from stealing phones, they should have a kill switch built in so that any unauthorized use will render the phone so useless that even an experienced thief with hacking ability will find it pointless. This whole feature should be built into phones to discourage widespread phone thieves who make a lot of money off of them on the black market.
on May 5,2013 | 12:11AM
st1d wrote:
if you read my response to the previous poster, you will see that it is a simple thing for the phone carriers to track any of their phones by gps.

the point of the data base is to allow cell phone carriers to share the locations of stolen cell phones with law enforcement absent warrants and owner permission. in other words, as soon as a user reports to law enforcement that the phone was taken in a robbery, the phone company can share the phone's gps location with law enforcement.

however, the cell phone companies will demand liability protection before they move forward with the development of the national data base. that's what the negotiations with attorney generals and local prosecutors are mainly concerned with, cell phone company liability protection and immunity from law suits.

and, hacking still leaves the phone gps feature active and pinging as soon as the phone is turned on, otherwise, there would be no point in developing the national data base.

on May 5,2013 | 03:46AM
bender wrote:
The cell phone companies can only track the phone to a certain tower, beyond that they are blind. If a tower serves an area that is within 1 mile of the tower, then that's a lot of terrirtory the stolen phone could be in. I used a radius of 1 mile but I think it's probably a bigger area, so it becomes even less likely the location can be pinpointed.
on May 5,2013 | 05:45AM
al_kiqaeda wrote:
Bottomline: police departments are not going to spend the man hours to track down a $200 phone. Just not going to happen.
on May 5,2013 | 09:01AM
st1d wrote:
on May 5,2013 | 01:02PM
bender wrote:
It would seem to be simple for the cell phone manufacturer's to build in the "kill switch" feature. I think those who get on the bandwagon early will enjoy better sales. If 175 million phones were stolen last year, then there's a lot of upset people who would love to retaliate against the thieves and that could translate to better sales for those who provide the "kill switch".
on May 5,2013 | 05:48AM
al_kiqaeda wrote:
Same technique would work against drug cartels. Make pot legal, tax it (and use the tax money for drug abuse education) and watch the cartels shrink and the violence slow rapidly.
on May 5,2013 | 08:59AM
hawn wrote:
Half the robberies in San Francisco were cell phones, what is the total number nation wide? Just think, everyone who's cell phone is stolen has to buy a new one, $$$ why would the big companies Apple, Google, Samsung make something hat would curb sales, not a good business decision.
on May 5,2013 | 07:00AM
UhhDuhh wrote:
Exactly. Theft = more business for these manufacturers. The responsibility for protecting the phone is on the phone owners. Nobody would leave a couple hundred dollar bills lying around in a public place. Keep it in your pocket or your wife's purse and nobody would steal it! Hellooooo?
on May 5,2013 | 07:57AM
mikethenovice wrote:
You should still call and contact the cell company just to be sure. They can always play stupid and continue to charge you if you don't make the call. And that would stand in the court of law that no attempt to correspond was ever made. Credit card companies do it and get away with it.
on May 5,2013 | 08:10AM
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