Android and Windows Phone to get kill switch

Google and Microsoft are to add a kill-switch to their mobile operating systems to help reduce smartphone theft

Google and Microsoft have announced they are to add a security kill-switch to their Android and Windows Phone operating systems.

The move is aimed at reducing smartphone theft by building in a feature that can make the device useless if stolen.

US authorities, in particular, have been calling for more smartphone makers to join Apple and Samsung in adding a kill switch to their devices, with 3.1 million mobile devices stolen in the US in 2013.

Almost a third of US robberies involve phone theft, according to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), which has led law enforcement officials to demand a solution.

In May, Minnesota became the first US state to introduce legislation that requires some form of kill switch on all smartphones sold in the state from July 2015.

The state of California is also reported to be close to introducing similar legislation, while the US Congress is considering national legislation along these lines,

US legislators are in favour of kill switches that will render a stolen device permanently unusable rather than simply making the device unusable by any unauthorised user.

But the problem is worldwide, with a third of Europeans experiencing the theft or loss of a mobile device in 2013, according to the BBC.

In South Korea mobile device theft increased five-fold between 2009 and 2012, and in Colombia more than one million devices were stolen in 2013.

More on kill switches

To combat the problem, US law enforcement officers, legislators and consumer advocates launched a campaign a year ago to push for an international agreement on the need for a kill switch and put pressure on manufacturers.

The Secure Our Smartphones initiative is co-chaired by London mayor Boris Johnson, New York state attorney general Eric Schneiderman and San Francisco district attorney George Gascon,

The initiative is designed to put pressure on the phone industry to help solve the issue of smartphone and tablet theft.

But industry experts have expressed concern that kill signals could be hijacked and used by hackers to disable phones and that phones placed in “airplane mode” will not receive the kill signal.

The Wireless Association, a trade group for wireless providers, has expressed concerns that hackers could disable mobile devices belonging to consumers as well as entities such as the Department of Defense, Homeland Security and law enforcement agencies

Other critics of the initiative have said that kill switches will not deter criminals from stealing smartphones to strip them for parts.

But authorities claim that Apple's “Activation Lock” feature introduced in iOS 7 released in September last year, has helped reduce theft substantially.

According to a report by the New York State Attorney General, in the first five months of 2014 the theft of Apple devices fell by 17% in New York City.

iPhone robberies fell 24% in London and 38% in San Francisco in the six months after Apple introduced the feature, compared with the previous six months.

In contrast, during the same period the theft of other popular mobile devices increased, the report said.

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