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Will Bricking Smartphones Thwart Theft?

According to industry analyst Gartner, 435 million smartphones were sold worldwide in the second quarter of 2013 alone. Smartphone theft is also on the rise: Consumer Reports said that 1.6 million phones were stolen from US consumers in 2012.

Smartphone and mobile device theft is such a common occurrence that there’s even a nickname for it when a certain brand is targeted — “Apple picking” is the term for the theft of popular Apple products like iPhones.

Apple announced last summer that its new devices will be equipped with a kill switch, enabling owners to shut down phones remotely and require a registered username and password to unlock the device and turn off GPS tracking. Legislation requiring OEMs to include a smartphone kill switch was proposed in California. And now the US Senate has proposed similar legislation with the Smartphone Theft Prevention Act.

“This legislation will help eliminate the incentives for criminals to target smartphones by empowering victims to take steps to keep their information private; protect their identity and finances; and render the phone inoperable to the thieves,” said Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), one of the bill’s four co-sponsors.

It’s an urgent problem since almost a third of robberies in the US involve cellphone theft. And there’s a mobile device theft crime wave underway in major US cities, with more than half of robberies involving smartphone theft in New York City and San Francisco.

The idea behind the bill is that a kill switch will make the smartphone completely worthless once activated, thus removing thieves’ incentives to steal them. But is that really what happens? Smartphone thieves typically resell stolen devices on the secondary market, peddling purloined iPhones and stolen Samsung Galaxys on sites like eBay or Craigslist, where innocent consumers may end up purchasing a bricked phone while the thief still makes a profit.

The CTIA, a telecom industry group, is skeptical of the kill switch strategy — and concerned about the possibilities for misuse. The group noted that the built-in ability to remotely brick a smartphone could be abused by hackers, who could maliciously shutdown phones permanently. The group also points out that a temporary kill switch wouldn’t work since a recovery process could be cracked by thieves, defeating the original purpose.

It’s conceivable that widespread implementation of a kill switch could actually increase phone-related crime. A kill switch that turns off all functions, including GPS tracking, provides no clues to the thief’s whereabouts, and the short shelf-life of a stolen mobile phone could prompt thieves to steal them more frequently for personal use, according to some in the industry, who argue instead for more aggressive law enforcement and a serial number tracking database.

Still, there are drawbacks to that position as well: Tracking services provided by OEMs are generally only available to direct customers, leaving people who purchase devices on the secondary market out in the cold. And the tracking capabilities, while advanced, are not infallible: Occasionally, device trackers knock on the wrong door.

Overall, a move toward a kill switch standard would likely reduce but not eliminate smartphone theft, much as the transition from cash to credit cards as the default payment standard systemically reduces the risk of being robbed of currency. What is clear is that the present situation must be addressed in some way that protects consumers. Working with the industry, lawmakers need to find a way to stop the smartphone crime wave sooner rather than later.

David Anderson is product director of Protect Your Bubble, a direct-to-consumer insurance unit of Assurant.