Phone makers should embrace kill switch

Thursday's meeting at which District Attorney George Gascón and New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman will sit down with representatives of large cellphone manufacturers could be a key step toward reducing the theft of mobile phones and tablets. Everyone should take note of what is said during the confab.

In recent months, Gascón has been pushing cellphone manufacturers and mobile carriers to adopt technologies that would render phones useless once they are stolen. Gascón has explained that kill-switch technology discourages thefts by reducing the devices' resale value. Manufacturers and carriers now profit from stolen phones, since victims of device theft must buy new ones, which often also prompts them to sign new multiyear contracts.

In a promising development, Apple announced Monday that it plans to implement such technology in the coming months. But without other cellphone makers or carriers taking steps to disincentivize such theft, our nation's ongoing mobile device crime wave will only continue. Nationally, about one out of every three robberies now involves the theft of a mobile phone, according to the Federal Communications Commission. In San Francisco, the rate is even higher, with Police Department statistics pegging cellphones as a target in roughly half of all robberies last year.

Gascón rightly points out that increased policing and prosecution cannot be the sole answer. After all, the crime has a low barrier to entry, and the robust resale market for mobile devices tends to reward people who engage in this behavior. When thieves are arrested and prosecuted, they are merely replaced by others. The only effective way to break this cycle is to destroy the resale value of these stolen devices.

The cellphone industry tried setting up a national registry against which phones could be checked to see if they were stolen. But the program's effectiveness is limited because the registry is voluntary. Less reputable service providers can choose to ignore the registry and activate a used phone for the very person who stole it. And many stolen phones are reportedly shipped overseas, allowing them to sidestep the nationwide registry.

A kill-switch option for all cellphones is now supported by most law enforcement officials, including the Major Cities Chiefs Association. Gascón should receive the credit for propelling this idea onto a national stage, leading to Thursday's meeting. Now cellphone makers or carriers need to adopt such technology to make the users of their phones safer.

editorialsGeorge Gasconkill switchOpinionsmartphone thefts

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