Mobile networks reject kill switch
America's biggest carriers have rejected a plan by Samsung for a universal built-in "kill switch" device that would render stolen or lost phones inoperable, San Francisco's top prosecutor says.
District attorney George Gascon said AT&T, Verizon Wireless, United States Cellular, Sprint and T-Mobile US rebuffed Samsung's proposal to pre-load its phones with Absolute LoJack anti-theft software as a standard feature.
The wireless industry says a kill switch is not the answer because it could allow a hacker to disable someone's phone.
Mr Gascon, New York attorney general Eric Schneiderman and other law enforcement chiefs have been demanding that manufacturers create kill switches to combat surging smartphone theft across the US.
Nearly one in three US robberies involve phone theft, according to the Federal Communications Commission. Lost and stolen mobile devices - mostly smartphones - cost consumers more than 30 billion dollars (£18.6bn) last year, according to a study cited by Mr Schneiderman in June.
Samsung told the San Francisco district attorney's office in July that carriers were resisting kill switches and prosecutors have recently reviewed emails between a senior vice president at Samsung and a software developer about the issue. One email in August said Samsung had pre-installed kill switch software in some smartphones ready for shipment, but carriers ordered their removal as a standard feature.
"These emails suggest that the carriers are rejecting a technological solution so they can continue to shake down their customers for billions of dollars in (theft) insurance premiums," Mr Gascon said. "I'm incensed. ... This is a solution that has the potential to end the victimisation of their customers".
Samsung, the world's largest mobile phone manufacturer, said it was co-operating with Mr Gascon, Mr Schneiderman and the carriers on an anti-theft solution, but declined to comment specifically about the emails.
"We are working with the leaders of the Secure Our Smartphones (SOS) Initiative to incorporate the perspective of law enforcement agencies," said Samsung spokeswoman Jessica Redman. "We will continue to work with them and our wireless carrier partners toward our common goal of stopping smartphone theft."
Although the popular Samsung Galaxy smartphones are shipped across the country without LoJack as a standard feature, users can pay a subscription fee for the service.
CTIA-The Wireless Association, a trade group for wireless providers, said it has been working with the FCC, law enforcement agencies and elected officials on a national stolen phone database scheduled to launch on November 30.
The CTIA says a permanent kill switch has serious risks, including potential vulnerability to hackers who could disable mobile devices and lock out not only individuals' phones but also phones used by entities such as the Department of Defence, Homeland Security and law enforcement agencies.
"The problem is, how do you trigger a kill switch in a secure manner and not be compromised by a third party and be subjected to hacking?" said James Moran, a security adviser with the GSMA, a British wireless trade group that has overseen a global stolen mobile phone database and is helping to create the US version.
Last year, about 121 million smartphones were sold in the US, according to International Data Corp, a Massachusetts-based researcher. About 725 million smartphones were sold worldwide, accounting for 281 billion dollars (£174bn) in sales, IDC said.
Samsung, with its popular Galaxy S4 smartphone, shipped 81 million phones - more than the next four manufacturers combined - during the most recent sales quarter for a market share of 31%, IDC reported in October. Apple shipped 34 million iPhones for a market share of 13%.
In June, Mr Gascon and Mr Schneiderman held a "Smartphone Summit" in New York City to call on representatives from Apple, Samsung, Google and Microsoft to adopt kill switches that would be free to consumers.
That week, Apple said such a feature, an "activation lock" would be part of its iOS 7 software that was eventually released this autumn. The new activation lock feature is designed to prevent thieves from turning off the Find My iPhone application, which allows owners to track their phone on a map, remotely lock the device and delete its data.
The activation lock requires someone to know the user's Apple ID and password to reactivate a phone, even after all the data on the device is erased.
In July, prosecutors brought federal and state security experts to San Francisco to test Apple's iPhone 5 with its activation lock and Samsung's Galaxy S4 with LoJack.
Treating the phones as if they were stolen, experts tried to circumvent their anti-theft features to evaluate their effectiveness, and that work is continuing.
One Silicon Valley technology security expert said he thinks Apple's activation lock is the first kill switch that meets law enforcement's desire to protect iPhone users and other smartphone manufacturers should follow suit.
"Thieves cannot do anything with the device unless they have the user's ID, which they don't," said Ojas Rege, vice president of strategy at Mobile Iron, a technology software security company in Mountain View, California.
"The activation lock addresses this issue without the carriers having to do anything," he said, adding that he did not believe resistance to implementing kill switch technology was fuelled by profits.
"That is not the number one priority for manufacturers. They're driven by creating the next great feature for their smartphones," he said.