U.S. cellphone carriers were offered a technology last year that supporters say would dramatically cut incidents of smartphone theft, but the carriers turned it down, according to sources with knowledge of the proposal.
The so-called "kill-switch" software allows consumers to remotely wipe and render their phones useless if stolen. Law enforcement and politicians believe the incentive for stealing a smartphone or tablet would be greatly reduced if the technology became standard, because the devices could quickly be rendered useless.
A proposal by Samsung to the five largest U.S. carriers would have made the LoJack software, developed by Canada's Absolute Software, a standard component on many of its Android phones in the U.S.
The proposal followed pressure from the offices of the San Francisco District Attorney and the New York Attorney General for the industry to do more to prevent phone theft. In many major U.S. cities, more than half of all street theft involves a smartphone or tablet. A handful of people have been killed for their devices.
On July 18, 2013, Samsung and Absolute met with technical experts from the Northern California Regional Intelligence Center, a high-tech crimes unit, and other law enforcement representatives in San Francisco. The experts were given phones with the system installed and attempted to circumvent the technology. At the same meeting, Apple demonstrated its yet-to-be-released Activation Lock feature, which provides a similar kill-switch function for iOS 7 devices.
In September, Samsung proposed to the carriers that the software be installed on its phones, said John Livingstone, who was CEO of Absolute at the time.
To work, the LoJack system requires two components. The first is code buried with the phone's firmware that ensures it remains active even if the operating system is reinstalled. The second is a desktop app through which users control the software. Most cellphones in the U.S. are sold by carriers, so their approval is required for apps to be pre-installed on devices.
Samsung's proposal was unique. LoJack typically costs $30 a year and includes physical retrieval of the phone if it's located, or a payment to the user of up to $600. Samsung offered to provide the kill-switch portion of the system at no charge -- allowing a stolen phone to be disabled -- and giving consumers the option of paying for the retrieval service, said Livingstone.
"Samsung took it out to the carriers," he said. "They proposed the Absolute LoJack kill switch to the big five phone companies. At that time, the carriers were not interested."
As a result, only the firmware portion of the LoJack system is pre-installed in a handful of Samsung phones and tablets. For it to be used, consumers have to download the app and subscribe to the service. There is no free version.
Samsung declined to comment for this article, citing "confidential business conversations" with Verizon. Absolute declined to "speculate" about any business deals between Samsung and the carriers.
Verizon Wireless declined several requests for an interview. In a statement, the carrier said it supports a free kill-switch for Android phones but that "no manufacturer has yet made one available to us and press reports to the contrary are inaccurate."
After further requests for comment, the company acknowledged it had worked with Samsung to evaluate a kill-switch application that would have been free to consumers. "However, during the course of evaluating the application, Samsung concluded that there were still unresolved technical and logistical issues associated with this application," Verizon said.
Denying it had rejected the software, it later said, "The Samsung app did not pass the evaluation process."
It did not respond to a request for further clarification.
Critics, including San Francisco District Attorney George Gascon, say the carriers are dragging their feet on deploying a kill-switch, in part because they sell insurance contracts to cover loss or damage of many new phones.
The carriers typically defer questions about the kill switch issue to the CTIA, the industry's powerful lobbying group in Washington, D.C., which declined an interview request for this story.
The CTIA has been championing a database that would block stolen phones from being activated on new networks, but the database covers only a handful of countries. The CTIA acknowledged this shortcoming earlier this year in a statement, saying "we need more international carriers and countries to participate to help remove the after market abroad for these trafficked devices."
"We encourage consumers to use currently available apps and features that remotely wipe, track and lock their devices in case they are lost or stolen, and our members are continuing to explore and offer new technologies to address these crimes while not inadvertently creating a 'trap door' that hackers and cybercriminals could exploit," the CTIA said.
The group also supports proposed legislation that would impose stricter penalties on those reprogramming stolen phones. But it is resisting legislation that would require the cellular industry to install kill switches.
It might have a fight on its hands.
Martyn Williams covers mobile telecoms, Silicon Valley and general technology breaking news for The IDG News Service. Follow Martyn on Twitter at @martyn_williams. Martyn's e-mail address is [email protected]