Google and Microsoft want to kill your phone if it's stolen. Do you feel safer?

Filed Under: Android, Apple, Featured, Google, iOS, Law & order, Microsoft, Mobile, Windows phone

Kill switch The law enforcement group Secure Our Smartphones is claiming victory after Google and Microsoft announced they will add a "kill switch" to their mobile operating systems.

Despite industry opposition to mandatory mobile device kill switch laws, new crime statistics show that Apple's addition of remote device locking to iOS 7 just might be having an effect on iPhone theft.

Incidences of iPhone thefts have shot down sharply in several cities since September 2013, when Apple added the kill switch features called Activation Lock.

New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman and San Francisco District Attorney George Gascón said the iPhone kill switch led to a major decline in iPhone thefts between September 2013 and April 2014 - 29% in New York City, 38% in San Francisco, and 24% in London.

According to a study released by the office of the New York Attorney General, theft of Samsung devices without a kill switch increased in all those cities during the same period.

In New York, Samsung thefts surged 40% during the first five months of 2014, according to Schneiderman's report.

Samsung, which runs on Google's Android operating system, added a kill switch to its Verizon Wireless devices in April 2014, but the AG's report doesn't have any statistics on an effect on Samsung thefts since then.

Microsoft's Windows Phone devices, which include all Nokia smartphones, were not included in the study - Windows Phones make up about 3% of the smartphone market, well behind the share held by Android and iOS.

Although Google, Samsung and Microsoft will be adding kill switches to their devices, that doesn't mean states like California and New York should step back on laws requiring them, Schneiderman and Gascón said.

Kill My iPhone

If your iPhone or iPad is lost or stolen, you can log into your Apple iCloud account to track, lock the device with a passcode, or zap the device entirely by deleting all its data.

The Find My iPhone app allows you to see the physical location of your lost or stolen iDevice, and set a lock screen message to give instructions to the person holding it - or even call you from the locked device.

It's a great feature, and it seems to be working.

However, some clever hackers have figured out how to turn Find My iPhone on its head in order to lock users' devices and hold them to ransom.

Crooks calling themselves Oleg Pliss used stolen Apple ID credentials to access the Find My iPhone feature in Apple's iCloud, which they switched on to lock the devices of victims in Australia, California, and also Russia, where two hackers were arrested for the scam.

The good news about this kind of ransom attack is that it only works if you don't have a passcode or fingerprint ID on your device already.

The Secure Our Smartphones coalition still wants better anti-theft protections than what Apple is currently offering.

Gascón told The New York Times that, because Find My iPhone is not on by default in iOS 7, many people don't know how to turn it on.

"Some people might not be tech-savvy enough to do this," he told the Times.

It will be interesting to see how and when Apple, Samsung, Google and Microsoft move to better anti-theft technology.

Apple's Touch ID, and the fingerprint ID on the Galaxy S5, have both proven vulnerable to hacking with fake fingerprints.

What's next for anti-theft technology? Well, how about transparent sensors embedded in the glass on device screens to check your fingerprints, your temperature, or maybe your DNA?

According to researchers at Columbia University and Corning who recently discovered how to use lasers to create see-through sensors in devices' screens, this technology can be used to identify devices in a way that can't be removed by thieves for reselling.

Image of dead iPhone courtesy of Shutterstock.

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11 Responses to Google and Microsoft want to kill your phone if it's stolen. Do you feel safer?

  1. Control over your phone. The big red off switch button. Give that power over. I mean, what could possibly go wrong? Imagine if you could silence the arab spring, the global uprisings. See, governments are scared, scared of you and your voice. Being heard around the world can influence the world. Can change the world, can bring down tyrants. What government really needs is the ability to silence you, to "kill" your voice. Things like this do just that, but of course it's being done to lower crime and for your own good. Think about these powers that you hand off to your government. You may trust it in the hands of politicians or businesses now, but 10-15 years from now, what kind of people will be in power and how will they use this authority you grant them?

    Learn to accept the difficulties that come with freedom and always choose freedom and less power to the government. It is better to live free than to feel safe under oppression.

    • Ambianca · 476 days ago

      There is no question that giving power to what you (mistakenly) call "government" is unwise. The presumption that it will use that power wisely and justly is the tenuous thread that holds it from falling into tyranny. You're concerned about that thread breaking, and for good reason; it often does.

      But the problem is that it's not really government in the first place. It's a political state. It uses force (or the threat of force) to accomplish its goals. True government can't do that. It can only protect freedom, lives, and other properties. It has no power to destroy them. It is not in the business of forcing anybody to do anything. Security lies in protection, not in interference.

      The reason we don't have true government is because of the single, persistent, ubiquitous fallacy that the only way to provide government is to give some people or some entity the power to coerce others and "hope" they will use it morally. But they can't, because power corrupts.

      The human species will make real progress when we abandon this superstition that legalized coercion is the only way to provide governance.

  2. Sammie · 476 days ago

    Better a kill switch than nothing. At least it deters a lot of crime and distress for those affected.

  3. Right, like they won't trigger this en masse to disrupt electronically-organized protests. "Trust Big Brother."

    • chcurtis · 476 days ago

      For this to be applied en masse, first you would have to get Apple to agree to send out the signal, and then Apple would have to reset everyone's passwords to prevent them from removing the block.
      I suppose the government could similarly get all the banks to reset everyone's banking passwords. Not likely.

  4. Laurence Marks · 476 days ago

    I suppose the cops and courts found it easier to mandate kill switcxhes than to actually do the job they're being paid to do.

  5. The good must constantly try to outwit the bad .....

  6. DontGetIt · 475 days ago

    Wait a minute.

    In all this discussion of kill switches and bricking, no information has been provided on the actual result.

    I am assuming that "bricking" means returning the device to factory default. Now it is ready to be reprogrammed.

    How does this inhibit theft of devices? Who want someone else s photos and emails anyway?

    • Chris · 474 days ago

      This is incorrect, actually. Bricking doesn't mean factory defaults. It means turning your device into a brick. A paperweight. A bricked device does absolutely nothing. Doesn't call, doesn't access the internet, doesn't even turn on.

      And if you work from your phone, or bank from your phone, there can be a LOT of information there for thieves. If a phone is bricked, there is no information for the thieves to use, nor a useful device to resell

      • Paul Ducklin · 212 days ago

        Bit late now [2015-03-11T21:30Z], but I changed "brick" to the rather nebulous but less specific word "zap."

        As you say, "bricking" usually means "reprogramming disastrously," so even a factory reset is impossible, because you can't even trigger load the code that initiates the factor reset any more...

  7. Dennis · 473 days ago

    The question is "Do you feel safer?" Easy answer -- NO!

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About the author

John Zorabedian is a blogger, copywriter and editor at Sophos. He has a background in journalism, writing about technology, business, politics and culture. He lives and works in the Boston area.