Feature

Your carrier just nixed a plan that would keep phone thieves from targeting you

AT&T, Verizon, T-Mobile, and Sprint just vetoed Samsung's proposal to install theft-deterrent software on its phones, which means you're still a target

AT&T, Verizon, T-Mobile, and Sprint just rejected a landmark proposal from Samsung to implement kill switch software on its smartphones, which would allow you to disable your phone in the event that it's stolen.

Lawmakers, law enforcement, and other officials from both San Francisco and New York have wholeheartedly endorsed its implementation, saying it would help cut down smartphone theft rates tremendously. So why are all the major carriers unanimous in nixing the idea?

The answer: Profits. Duh.

Brian X. Chen at the New York Times reports that, according to emails obtained between a Samsung executive and a software developer, "it appeared that the carriers were unwilling to allow Samsung to load the antitheft software" onto its devices.

[The emails] suggest that the carriers are concerned that the software would eat into the profit they make from the insurance programs many consumers buy to cover lost or stolen phones. [New York Times]

Now kill switches do have their potential drawbacks. But they are largely a good idea. Bricking a stolen phone throttles the secondhand economy by turning the devices into un-sellable paperweights. Last year, CBS News reported that cell phone theft in New York City was at an "all-time high," and the trend is similar in other big cities like Los Angeles and San Francisco.

"Just about every major city across the country has the same exact crime dynamic," Chicago Police Supt. Garry McCarthy noted to CBS. "Those gadgets are valuable and as a result they help drive crime trend." In Washington D.C., for example, 40 percent of robberies involve cell phones. People are sometimes killed for them.

As an alternative measure, the carriers are keen on doubling down on a nationwide database for stolen-phones, which, you may not have heard, quietly went live in October 2012.

So far, the database has proven clumsy and ineffective: Thieves simply circumvent it by selling stolen devices overseas, or use a workaround to bypass each device's unique identifier. To top it off, many people aren't even aware of the database's existence.

CTIA, the trade group that represents the carriers, claims that a kill switch would pose an extra risk to consumers because "hackers who took control of the feature would disable phones for customers." Chen explains:

The trade group added that if a phone were deactivated and the customer later retrieved it, he or she could not reactivate it. That claim is not true in the case of Apple's new antitheft feature, Activation Lock, which allows a customer to disable a phone that has been lost, and, after it has been found, reactivate it with the correct username and password. [New York Times]

But let's forget about the questionable morality of allowing your customers to become targets and talk business. Let's pretend kill switches are implemented. And, conservatively, let's say they eliminate a small portion of the secondary market for Galaxy devices that compete directly with the sellers' hardware sales. Theoretically speaking, this allows something like the Verizon store to sell more phones, right?

It does! But since net profits on hardware are much slimmer than something physically intangible like an expensive insurance plan most people will never use, carriers are reluctant to change. They're making money off your fear.

All of which is of course doubly bad for consumers. And theft will continue to rise as more people purchase nicer phones. "Corporate profits cannot be allowed to guide decisions that have life-or-death consequences," San Francisco district attorney George Gascón tells the Times. So until something changes, Galaxy owners, remember: You're still a target. And the carriers seem OK with that.

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