Companies to voluntarily activate smartphone "kill switches" in 2015

Smartphone activated after July 2015 just might have a "kill switch" -- rendering the device inoperable if it was ever lost or stolen.

According to the Federal Communications Commission, 40 percent of robberies across the country now involve smartphones, with Consumer Reports saying that 1.6 million Americans were victims in 2012 -- costing them more than $30 billion dollars.

In response, officials in several states, including California and New York, have proposed legislation for the security feature over the last several months, with the wireless industry decidedly against the measure. On Tuesday, the CTIA announced a "Smartphone Anti-Theft Voluntary Commitment," the wireless industry's own effort to deter smartphone thefts in the United States.

Five of the largest wireless carriers in the country and tech companies, like Apple, Microsoft, Google and Samsung, will honor the commitment. Phones manufactured after July 2015 will reportedly have the ability to wipe data remotely and render the device inoperable, to prevent it from being reactivated without the owner's permission. If recovered, lost or stolen devices could be restored via the cloud.

"This flexibility provides consumers with access to the best features and apps that fit their unique needs, while protecting their smartphones and the valuable information they contain," CTIA President Steve Largent said in a statement.

"At the same time, it's important different technologies are available so that a 'trap door' isn't created that could be exploited by hackers and criminals. By working together with policymakers, law enforcement and consumers, we will deter theft and protect users' personal information on smartphones."

However, both government officials and wireless companies differ on the exact nature of the security feature. Wireless companies say that it will be opt-in, meaning that consumers must request that the particular feature be activated or downloaded. Government officials argue it should be opt-out, meaning that the kill switch will be mandatory, but can be deactivated should consumers decide to.

This is a complete about-face for the wireless industry, who had originally stated that a permanent kill switch has serious risks, including a potential vulnerability to hackers that could disable mobile devices -- used not only by individuals -- but by government and law enforcement officials as well.

One of the more outspoken critics, California state Sen. Mark Leno, announced a "kill switch" bill in February, saying that the state could no longer "continue to stand by and when a solution is readily available." In a city where half of the crimes occur because of smartphone thefts, Leno told the San Francisco Chronicle the security feature must be ubiquitous.

"It should come enabled when you purchase your phone and the retailer activates it. That is fundamental to communicating to potential perpetrators that their stealing these phones will be a worthless venture," Leno told the newspaper.

Members of the "Secure our Smartphones" initiative, led by New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman and Leno, agree.

"Thieves are not going to stop stealing smartphones until they know the smartphones are all worthless," Schneiderman told reporters in March.

Despite this potential obstacle, some industry experts say that this is a good start.

"So there are still things that we need to discuss, but so far I like what the CTIA and the industry is proposing. It provides the protection to those who want it," says Jeff Kagan, a technology industry analyst, in a statement.

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