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A.G. Schneiderman And D.A. Gascón Announce That Google And Microsoft Will Include A Smartphone Kill Switch In Next Operating Systems

Inaugural Report Also Reveals New Data Showing That Thefts Fell Drastically Following Apple’s Introduction Of A Kill Switch

NEW YORK – Attorney General Eric Schneiderman and San Francisco District Attorney George Gascón today announced that, for the first time, Google and Microsoft will incorporate a kill switch into the next version of their respective operating systems. Google’s operating system, Android, runs on more than half of all smartphones used in the United States. Microsoft’s operating system is on all Nokia smartphones. Today's announcement means that a kill switch will be incorporated into the three dominant smartphone operating systems — Android, iOS, and Windows Phone — which currently encompass 97 percent of smartphones in the United States. 

The announcement is part of a new report issued by the Secure Our Smartphones (“S.O.S.”) Initiative, an international partnership of law-enforcement agencies, elected officials and consumer advocates, which will mark its first year tomorrow.

The report also revealed new crime statistics showing that, after Apple added a "kill switch," robberies and grand larcenies involving iPhones plummeted. Simultaneously, violent crimes against people carrying phones without a kill switch surged. The data is part of a new report issued by the Secure Our Smartphones (“S.O.S.”) Initiative, an international partnership of law-enforcement agencies, elected officials and consumer advocates, which will mark its first year tomorrow.

“The commitments of Google and Microsoft are giant steps toward consumer safety and the statistics released today illustrate the stunning effectiveness of kill switches,” said Attorney General Eric Schneiderman. “In just one year, the Secure Our Smartphones Initiative has made tremendous strides towards curtailing the alarming trend of violent smartphone theft. We will continue the fight to ensure that companies put consumers’ safety first and work toward ending the epidemic of smartphone theft. ”

The new report, “Secure Our Smartphone Initiative: One Year Later,” includes previously unreleased data from the New York City Police Department (“NYPD”), as well as the police departments of San Francisco and London. The new statistics describe the scope of the smartphone theft epidemic and validate the kill switch as an effective part of a multi-layered approach to combatting smartphone crimes. The statistics also validate the necessity of a ubiquitous opt-out solution. 

In New York City, theft of iPhones fell significantly after the release of Apple’s Activation Lock on September 18, 2013, as indicated in the chart below. In the first five months of 2014, robberies and grand larcenies involving Apple products dropped 19% and 29%, respectively, compared to the same time period from 2013. The decrease in Apple thefts far surpassed the citywide decrease in all robberies (-10%) and all grand larcenies (-18%). Perhaps most tellingly, robberies and grand larcenies from a person involving a Samsung smartphone, which did not have a kill switch during much of this time, increased by over 40%. (Encouragingly, Samsung introduced a kill switch solution in April of 2014 on their Verizon Wireless devices, the impact of which will likely be seen in future statistics.)

Statistics from San Francisco and London show similar outcomes. In San Francisco, iPhone robberies declined 38% while robberies of Samsung devices increased by 12%. In London, Apple thefts declined by 24% while Samsung thefts increased by 3%. (In both cities, data from six months leading up to Apple’s Activation Lock was compared to the six months following its introduction.)

“We can make the violent epidemic of smartphone theft a thing of the past, and these numbers prove that,” said District Attorney George Gascón. “It was evident from day one that a technological solution was not only possible, but that it would serve as an effective deterrent to this growing threat.  This past year we successfully held the wireless industry’s feet to the fire and it’s already having an impact for consumers. In the year ahead we will work to ensure this technology is deployed industry-wide, and in the most effective manner possible.” 

"In the year since London joined with our friends and colleagues in the US in the Secure Our Smartphones coalition we've made significant progress in reducing the number of smartphone thefts, which have been a shared problem across our cities,” said London Mayor Boris Johnson. "By making the phone manufacturers face up to the responsibility they have to their customers, technology that previously attracted thieves is now being used to deter them. The SOS has shown that the only solutions to these global problems are ones developed globally and Londoners and I look forward to further progress as we enter our second year." 

Richard Aborn, President of the Citizens Crime Commission of New York City,said, "Cell phone theft has become a major public safety issue in New York and across the country. Unfortunately, these robberies often become violent and put innocent people at serious risk. The Crime Commission is proud to have been a part of the S.O.S. Initiative from the beginning, and we are encouraged by the positive impact it has had on this crime trend in such a short time under the leadership of Attorney General Schneiderman. There is still much to do, however, to protect citizens in our city and elsewhere from cell phone theft. Local law enforcement, Congress, and hardware and software companies must work together to make stealing a smartphone a worthless endeavor for criminals."

In the year since its inception, the S.O.S. Initiative has spurred a major shift in the wireless industry, evidenced by several tangible accomplishments:

  • In September, 2013, just three months after S.O.S. began its efforts, Apple unveiled “Activation Lock,” a proof-of-concept kill switch available on all iPhones running the iOS 7  operating system with ‘Find My iPhone’ enabled. In April, 2014, Samsung introduced “Reactivation Lock.”
  • Earlier this year, S.O.S. worked with Senator Amy Klobuchar and Representative Jose Serrano to introduce companion federal legislation to require carriers and manufacturers to make kill switch anti-theft solutions mandatory for all smartphones in the United States. On May 15, 2014, Minnesota became the first state to mandate a kill switch on all phones.
  • In April, 2014, the industry group CTIA abandoned its long-held opposition to a kill switch and announced a “Smartphone Anti-Theft Voluntary Commitment” in which AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile, U.S. Cellular, Verizon Wireless and others pledged to implement a kill switch solution on an opt-in basis.

The work of the S.O.S. Initiative continues. With the majority of phones still without a kill switch, smartphone-related thefts and violence remain a tragic reality. Criminals now target devices not likely to be equipped with a kill switch, increasing the importance of immediately implementing the life-saving technology across all manufacturers. Because kill switches are only available on an opt-in basis, not enough consumers are signing-up. This underscores the urgency of S.O.S.’s call to make kill switches a standard opt-out function on all phones.

Editors' Choice
Jai Vijayan, Contributing Writer, Dark Reading
Kelly Jackson Higgins 2, Editor-in-Chief, Dark Reading