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10 things to know about the smartphone kill switch

It's looking more and more likely that phones will sport a kill switch starting next year

By Martyn Williams
June 24, 2014 04:42 PM ET

IDG News Service - Apple already has one, Microsoft and Google say they'll build one, Minnesota will demand it from next year and it could soon be the law in California and maybe nationwide. The smartphone kill switch appears to be on its way to every handset sold in the U.S. so what's all the fuss about? Here's a look at the main points of the technology.

What is it?

For more than a year, law enforcement officials across the U.S. have been pressuring the telecom industry to do more to combat smartphone theft, and the kill switch has been proposed as the answer. It's a piece of software installed in every new phone that can disable a stolen handset.

The laws don't target tablet PCs, basic cellphones or other devices with cellular connectivity.

Why is it needed?

In the last few years, the number of violent thefts of smartphones on the streets of major U.S. cities has been rising. Some estimates say one in three thefts in the U.S. involve a smartphone. Thieves snatch phones from the hands of victims as they walk down the street or sit on public transport and then dart away. A sizable portion of crimes involve people being threatened with knives or guns, or victims are assaulted.

Police believe that if phones can be disabled, they'll become much less valuable on the secondhand market and the incentive for theft will drop considerably.

How will it work?

If your phone is stolen, you or someone you have authorized will be able to call your carrier or use a website to send a "kill" signal to your phone. That signal will lock the device and, if you choose, will also delete personal data. The kill switch will "render the device inoperable on the network of any provider of commercial mobile service or commercial mobile data service globally, even if the device is turned off or has the data storage medium removed," according to the federal proposal.

The only way to revive a locked phone will be with a password supplied by the phone's owner.

When will it begin?

Minnesota's law and the proposed California legislation both mandate a kill-switch for smartphones that are both sold in those states and manufactured after July 1, 2015. Pending federal legislation says Jan. 1, 2015, but that's likely to be changed as it makes it way through committees.

In Minnesota, the software must be installed or available for download, in California it will have to be preinstalled on new devices.

How much will it cost?

The Minnesota law and the proposed legislation in California and at the federal level mandate it must be available at no extra cost to users.

Reprinted with permission from IDG.net. Story copyright 2014 International Data Group. All rights reserved.
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