When The DA Wants A Mobile Kill Switch And No One Cooperates


San Francisco District Attorney George Gascon is seeking a killer. He wants a killer of mobile devices to be created and installed in all phones sold, and he's trying to make it happen. To his frustration, though, the hunt has not gone well. As retailers move to embrace more mobile devices as in-store payment mechanisms, Gascon won't be alone in that frustration as thieves can easily grab such store-owned phones and run out, no weapons required. And despite various industry efforts, that phone will likely be fully effective and on the black market for resale within hours.

Gascon is confident that the technological hurdles of creating a master kill switch can be overcome, if and only if carriers and handset manufactures see profit in doing so. As it stands now, the DA concludes, many handset manufacturers are fine with today's phone theft epidemic, as it means additional sales of replacement phones. If kill switches were widely deployed, it would be harder (if not impossible) to sell the dead phones, and that would dry up the market, thereby reducing phone thefts.

As a practical matter, unless the kill switch permanently and dramatically destroyed key working elements of the phone, thieves would likely be able to reverse-engineer the switch and be able to bring phones back to life. And a truly destructive kill approach would be too dangerous, given that consumers often think that a misplaced phone was stolen.

But Gascon had choice words for industry players. He told reporters about a one-hour meeting he had with Michael Foulkes, an Apple government liaison. "He did most of the talking. It was incredible," Gascon said. "He would just go on and on, one subject to the next. It was hard to follow. It was almost like someone who's been trained in the art of doing a lot of talking and saying nothing." (Note: Apple executives don't have to take those courses. They teach them.)

The DA also was displeased with the results of that big anti-mobile-theft alliance. Last April, AT&T, Verizon Wireless, Sprint and T-Mobile agreed to begin sharing a list of serial numbers linked to stolen phones. Once the policy goes into effect by the end of this year, a phone reported stolen will no longer work on any major U.S. wireless network. Gascon, however, said the stolen-phone database "looks good but is nothing more than smoke and mirrors."

A similar stolen-phone blacklist launched in the United Kingdom a decade ago has not stopped phone thefts. Instead, it drove the black market overseas, because foreign wireless carriers don't participate in the database. Even if an iPhone is blacklisted, it can still connect to Wi-Fi hotspots to download games and music, browse the Web, make Skype calls and send text messages using WhatsApp, a popular Internet-based texting application.

For more:

- The San Francisco Examiner story
- The Huffington Post story

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