Carrier Politics Keep Samsung Phones at High Risk for Theft

Despite the best efforts of lawmakers in San Francisco and New York to get a “kill switch” implemented on smartphones to help reduce and curb the theft of high-end smartphones, politics from the carriers are preventing such an effort from happening for Samsung.

A kill switch would make it hard, if not impossible, to restore, activate, and use a phone once it’s reported or marked as stolen. Once the phone is stolen, the owner can remotely log in, wipe the phone’s data, and permanently lock it. For the thief, this phone would bear very little value if it cannot be activated, which would help curb the black market for stolen goods, a market that’s booming in larger cities in the U.S. that’s created by an explosion in demand in the latest consumer electronics from Apple, Samsung, Google, and others.

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Samsung had tried to help the situation by creating a solution with third-party software-maker Absolute in preloading its popular Galaxy smartphones with LoJack software.

In a report on the New York Times by Brian Chen, the effort was unsuccessful as carriers may have competing interests. Chen reported that San Francisco District Attorney George Gascon has been prematurely terminated by the carriers as the LoJack software carries a $30 annual subscription charge and would compete directly with the insurance plans that carriers sell.

All the major carriers in the U.S.–AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile, and Verizon–currently partner with Asurion in offering insurance for loss, damaged, or stolen phones. The plans run as high as $10 per month, and that bill is tacked onto a subscriber’s wireless statement. To replace a phone that’s stolen or lost, or one that has physical damage, a deductible is assessed. On AT&T, for example, that deductible could be as high as $200 for a high-end model on top of the monthly charges. Still, that amount is still far cheaper than having to buy a phone out of contract at full retail price.

“The carriers rejected [Samsung's solution] so they can continue to make money hand over fist on insurance premiums,” Gascon asserts.

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The industry lobbying group known as the CTIA, for which all the carriers are a member of, is also rejecting the idea. CTIA is concerned that if a phone is killed via the kill switch, it may be difficult, if not impossible, to reactivate it later if it’s found or if the switch was activated on accident.

Though a kill switch currently is not part of the Android operating system–Google does allow a user to remotely wipe a phone if it’s lost or stolen to protect content on the device–Apple has received both praise and scrutiny for its iOS 7 Activation Lock feature.

With Activation Lock, to wipe the phone and use it for a new user, the original user must enter a passcode or Apple ID to wipe the device. Without the passcode or Apple ID, a device cannot be wiped so a new user can activate it with their account.

The effort was unofficially endorsed by the New York Police Department (NYPD), which sent out public awareness flyers to residents to upgrade to the free iOS 7 operating system as soon as possible to help reduce cell phone thefts in the city.

Samsung’s spokesperson has responded in light of Chen’s article, stating that the manufacturer will continue working with the carriers in arriving at a solution. A specific timeline is not given.

In the interim, however, although LoJack isn’t preloaded on phones sold through the carriers, users can download and pay for the subscription service directly through Absolute Software, which claims that over 100 phones are lost or stolen ever minute.

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“If stolen, only the Absolute Theft Recovery Team can help locate and return your smartphone or tablet; or, if lost you can remotely delete files or lock the device so nobody can access your stuff,” the software-maker claims.

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