Google, Samsung and others agree to anti-theft remote kill-switch

by: Shawn IngramApril 15, 2014

google logo (2) Brionv

Most smartphones will have the ability for users to remotely wipe and lock them down in case they’re stolen after July 2015 thanks to a new industry initiative.

Google, HTC, Motorola, and Samsung joined the top five U.S. carriers and other companies like Apple, Microsoft, Huawei, and Nokia in agreeing to the initiative. The idea is that everyone will have the chance to protect the data on their phone and prevent the phone from being used by someone else if its ever stolen. Of course, users will be able to restore their phone data when they have access to the device, if they ever get their device back.

The initiative comes in response to numerous states considering laws that mandate such a kill-switch in an effort to stem smartphone theft. California state Senator Mark Leno told Re/code the initiative doesn’t go far enough, though. “Only weeks ago, [the wireless industry] claimed that the approach they are taking today was infeasible and counterproductive,” Leno said. “While I am encouraged they are moving off of that position so quickly, today’s ‘opt-in’ proposal misses the mark if the ultimate goal is to combat street crime and violent thefts involving smartphones and tablets.”

The kill-switch being opt-in means if you don’t want the chance to remotely wipe and lockdown your phone, you can simply not turn it on. Of course, that also means that those who don’t know about the feature, or never think they’re going to use it, won’t really be protected. If the feature is included in the myriad menus you have to click through to set up a phone there’s a chance more people will use it. Of course, there’s also the chance some will  ignore it because they just want to set up the phone and get to downloading Instagram, Threes, or whatever app they absolutely need to access right away, leaving the phone unprotected.

There’s still more than a year for Google and Android manufacturers to include the feature in their phones. Those feature may come sooner, though. Some phones already have the feature, Apple included such a feature, called Activation Lock, in iOS 7, but there’s no feature built into Android at the moment.

Do you think an opt-in option is good enough, or should the remote kill-switch be opt-out instead?

  • mrjayviper

    Apple can easily agree to it as their anti-theft system is already in place for new/recent devices!

    • The-Sailor-Man

      It’s on many Android devices too,

      • mrjayviper

        nothing like apple’s though?

        makes the phone useless unless you know the password to the Apple ID

      • mobilemann

        Apple doesn’t allow a restore / wipe / dfu mode. Google’s does, so it’s relatively pointless for theft.

        • Connor McKinnon

          No, Apple’s just allows you to lock the phone completely, rendering it useless except for parts. Hardly pointless, IMO.

          • mobilemann

            We agree, you interpreted my post wrong

  • vander

    What is the deference between this and the current generation of anti-thief apps like lookout?

    • monkey god

      The difference is one is builtin and the other one is a third party app you have to install. They’re trying to make it standard with all phones like with airbags and seatbelts in cars.

  • monkey god

    Google’s own “Android Device Manager” already does this doesn’t it? I have it on my phone, though I don’t remember if it came with android or not.

    • mrjayviper

      thieves can still use the phone and sell it. nothing anti-theft about the feature IMHO. From what I understand, “ADM” just wipes the phone content. Other apps like cerberus doesn’t really deter theft as the phone can still be wipe and “made new” so they can use it.

      Apple’s feature is what I would call anti-theft as it renders the phone useless (i.e. can’t activate) once the owner decides to lock it.

      • thiscommentsysblows

        What people forget is even if the phone is completely locked or perhaps even went for a swim in the toilet the screen alone can fetch upwards of 100$ on eBay. No serial number traceability no software locks none of this will make the phone ‘worthless’… How many sophisticated anti theft technologies were developed for automobiles? That is still a multi-million dollar crime industry. I urge the masses not to blindly give up control/freedom in return for a promise of security. That said the Opt-in Opt-out is a reasonable compromise. But even having that trigger in the system means it can be abused. Malware opting you in then locking your phone unless you pay a bit coin ransom perhaps?

        But don’t kid yourselves phones will still be stolen..and just wait until it escalates to the point someone is held and tortured for their phone password.. Its only a matter of time.

        • Tyler Shaw

          Very good point. Although I don’t really understand how this could be abused. Maybe they could integrate a system where you have to know your wireless providers account number in order to lock the device?

          As far as someone holding your phone ransom, I don’t think that is anything to worry about. If that became widespread, or even happened at all, Goolge would be all over it before the masses even knew about it. Besides this possibility would also be present to iphone users, as they already have a feature like this implemented. Now I’m not up to date on iPhone news, but I can’t say I’ve heard of any problems with the feature.

          I think they should implement all the security features they can. Anything to discourage the theft of these premium devices is always welcomed.

          • jeff

            Couldnt have said it any better. Completely agree !!!

        • mobilemann

          that $100 is not as much of an incentive as the ~3-400 new flagships can bring in. (in fact it’s a quarter of it)

          As for torture, i would think if they were going down that road, they wouldn’t be worried about your smart phone. They would be emptying your wallet / bank account.

  • sergey a

    I think it would be great. Just make it survive wipes/factory resets. Because current implementation doesn’t do that. Any one could factory reset stolen phone and use it for himself and/or resell it.

    • MasterMuffin

      The lock should put a password for recovery and bootloader

      • Tejas Jain

        Exactly. Thiefs aren’t dumb. There should be a method which allows the owner to remotely lock the phone is such a way that it boots into a special mode and from there it can’t be switched off or modified in any way. The special mode should continuously send location and other data in the background to an online portal which can be accessed by the user (just like avast’s online service). It shouldn’t allow access to recovery or bootloader until the user enters his password and even if the thief reboots the phone by removing and re-inserting the battery, the phone should boot into that special mode again. That would be the PERFECT anti-theft solution.

        • MasterMuffin

          Yup! But it can’t be obvious to the thief that (s)he’s getting tracked!

          • handsoffmyfone

            Theif puts the phone into a signal blocking pocket /pouch (available from china 2$), right after theft. Then in their lair keeps the phone powered down and maybe even swaps the mobo from a similar phone with a busted screen? Or just flashes a new ROM before the phone even gets this signal. Oh how effective. NOT

          • MasterMuffin

            Better than nothing -_-

      • sergey a

        Exactly. But there should be protection from flashing custom recovery/bootloader.
        The only drawback is such protection will severely cripple ability to install recoveries, custom ROMs, etc for legitimate users.

  • vylentgrrl

    McAfee can kinda sorta do that already. It will take pics of whoever has the phone, wipe it and still able to do it all from the web.

  • dan

    This would be a great feature if it wasn’t for the fact the government could also shut down your phone with a court order.

  • paulo


  • spincer

    The problem is,when ur phone I stolen can the thief use it.
    If yes,then I dont know how this anti-theft is going
    To be helpful.all the same lets have it and try it.

    • Knowles2

      In the UK networks can block the phone from their network as soon as it reported stolen, they then send that data to other networks to block the phone, this block is built directly into the hardware. Making phones stolen useless.

  • paulo

    I want to fry the mother board of my gadget is someone stills it

    • wakeup

      The screen the battery, buttons even your fancy case are all worth something. How would you like a software glitch or a 0day vulnerability rendering your and 10,000 other phones useless because of the equally small chance of you being mugged. In fact that FRY option would more than likely increase everyone’s chance of becoming phoneless

  • Ruz

    This initiative will kill the second hand smartphone market totally as the buyers will be cautious that even after buying the phone second hand may land him to debt and the seller may kill it or hack it. So not buying such phones would be more recommended. Secondly the second hand price of such high end phones becomes zero when u resale them.. So think twice before u buy such phones.

    • Willy André Bergstrøm

      In other words, an added bonus for the handset makers?

  • Morgan

    Opt-in kill-switch is the best. Any accidental remote wipe will be user responsibility, not manufacturer.

  • Alex Cuaron

    Wiping data is fine but what if we have critical data? Maybe not the nuclear launch codes but family photos or something intimate…!? Its not always an option.. I believe they can get their heads together & provide better tracking methods of lost gadgets.. Hope they will..

    • Akuma

      That is the reason why ther is online storage. Why do u not back up your data?

    • Knowles2

      All of my photos up automatically uploaded to cloud storage for safe keeping. Many options available here.

  • Herpy Derpy

    The kill switch should also include remote detonation.

  • Rob Triggs

    Whilst remote data protection is a sensible idea, I do wish the hysterical lawmakers would shut up and actually think their ideas through before they complain.

    Opting in to protect my own data is useful to me, I think the industry led initiative is quite practical too. On the other hand, mandatory kill switches do little, if anything, to combat the financial gains associated with phone theft. Stolen handsets (wiped or not) can still be re-sold for parts or sold as broken to unsuspecting members of the public.

    Then there’s the added cost of all this. I don’t want to pay anything extra for the questionable influence that such safety measures will have on me being robbed. Not to mention the implications this could have on second hand sales, rooting, custom software distributions, etc.

    • mobilemann

      not sure if you’re kidding or not.

      3rd party kill switches, like the ones android employed for years, are easily uninstalled, don’t have as many features, rely on the infrastructure of whatever app maker created it; and total trust in that app. It was idiotic. Find my iphone and the iOS 7 locks attached to it were a really really good idea.

      Eventually if the phones are completely useless to people, they will stop buying them. When stolen phones stop being bought, there’s no point to stealing them.

      There’s no reason not to love this stuff.

  • Andrew T Roach

    Other people losing their phones are not my problem. Take responsibility for yourself. Police don’t even investigate car thefts in the US, much less a worthless smartphone regardless of if it’s located or not.

    I do however think kill switches sounds like a great way for the government to disable mobile communication at will.

    • GJV

      Thanks for the tin foil hat comment, bud. I’m sure the government can’t wait to see what Andrew Roach is up to, because I hear you’re a pretty big deal. Anyhow back on Planet Earth the point is that if stolen phones have little value on the black market, thefts will drop. You can be a responsible person and still be mugged for your phone. And when cell phone stores are the targets of burglaries, insurance covers that. When insurance covers thefts, everybody’s rates go up. So it IS your problem.

  • Marius Rye

    I would love if someone made a tracking app for rooted android phone letting overclock the CPU to the point of which the battery would overheat and explored/ignite

  • Jason George

    i can never understand why things have to take so long. and it should be an opt-out and if you opt-out you cant get insurance on the device…

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