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Google, Microsoft agree to compromise on 'kill switches'

Laws and LegislationVerizon CommunicationsLobbyingPolitics
Law enforcement officials and smartphone makers meet in the middle on "kill switches"
"We can make the violent epidemic of smartphone theft a thing of the past"

Law enforcement officials and smartphone makers met in the middle Thursday, with two major industry players agreeing to meet cops halfway on “kill switches.”

Users of phones with Google or Microsoft operating systems will soon be able to activate kill switches on their devices nationwide.

The ability to render the pricey smartphones inoperable if stolen is believed to be a major deterrent for potential thieves. But the changes agreed to by Google and Microsoft still require users to take the proactive step of opting in, stopping short of the default kill switch law enforcement officials have been pushing for.

Still, the agreements were hailed as a positive step in a statement released by San Francisco Dist. Atty. George Gascón and New York Atty. Gen. Eric Schneiderman.

“We can make the violent epidemic of smartphone theft a thing of the past,” Gascón said. “This past year we successfully held the wireless industry’s feet to the fire and it’s already having an impact for consumers.”

The changes will apply to the owners of Android and Nokia phones.

The kill switches will be incorporated into the next version of each company’s operating system. Google’s operating system, Android, is on more than half of smartphones in the U.S. Microsoft’s is on all Nokia smartphones. Along with Apple’s iOS, which already signed on, the three companies make up 97% of American smartphones, authorities said.

Neither Gascón nor Schneiderman could be reached immediately by The Times.

Their announcement comes amid new numbers showing that even opt-in kill switches have significant impact.

In New York City during the first five months of 2014, thefts involving Apple products dropped 19% compared to the same time period from 2013. In San Francisco, iPhone thefts decreased by 38% while thefts of Samsung devices increased by 12%. (Earlier this year, Samsung announced a kill switch option on its Verizon devices.)

In California, the telecom lobby has fought to block legislation that would require default kill switches. The legislation appeared dead earlier this year but has shown some signs of life since.

Last month, the state Senate passed a measure that would require cellphones sold in California to be equipped with the switches. The bill had previously foundered. But legislators agreed to change it to exclude electronic tablets and delay the date the rule would be implemented, which resulted in Apple and Microsoft dropping their opposition. Five Democrats switched their votes to support the measure.

California Republicans have voiced opposition to the idea, arguing that the fines on retailers who sell phones without kill switches would be overly burdensome, especially since smartphones made outside the state could mistakenly be shipped to a California retailer.

Critics of the telecom industry have also argued that the telecom companies actually profit from stolen phones because they force customers to by insurance plans or brand new devices.

Similar legislation has been introduced on the federal level.

For more tech news, follow me @RobertFaturechi

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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