Cellular carriers in the U.S. want you to think they have your best interests at heart. That, hey, if your smartphone gets lost or stolen, they will have your back. At least that’s what those carriers would have you believe with a new smartphone “kill switch” proposal from the CTIA, the largest U.S. trade organization that supports the cellular operators.
Unfortunately, the CTIA’s new proposal looks a lot more like it is covering its bases to avoid state and federal regulation than going out of its way to altruistically help users of lost or stolen smartphones.
The CTIA is putting the onus of anti-theft software on the platform makers and device manufacturers. The biggest carriers—Verizon, AT&T, T-Mobile and Sprint—are able to ride on the technology of others while hiding behind the CTIA for policy protection. In the end, nothing will drastically change for smartphone users in the U.S. The carriers win by protecting the lucrative smartphone insurance business while letting other companies do the heavy lifting.
The Voluntary Agreement
For the specifics, the CTIA announced the “Smartphone Anti-Theft Voluntary Commitment” on Tuesday, which is a new policy that promises consumers that smartphone makers and carriers will protect them if their devices are stolen.
The idea is that smartphones will be sold with pre-installed anti-theft software. Just about every company that matters in the U.S. mobile industry has signed the voluntary agreement, including Apple, Google, Microsoft, Samsung, HTC, Motorola, Huawei, AT&T, T-Mobile, Verizon and Sprint.
The anti-theft software will come at no cost to consumers and comes with four capabilities:
- The ability to remotely wipe the primary user’s data on the smartphone when it’s lost or stolen.
- The ability to render the smartphone inoperable to anyone other than the primary user. This would entail locking the smartphone so it cannot be used without inputting a password or PIN.
- The ability to prevent the reactivation of the device without the primary user’s permission. This would include unauthorized factory resets (which is normally easily available to anybody that finds a device and can bypass the locked screen security, if there is any).
- Reverse the inoperability and restore the user’s data if they recover the device.
The voluntary anti-theft agreement goes into effect for all devices manufactured after July 2015.
The Kill Switch
To a certain extent, this voluntary anti-theft agreement is the smartphone kill switch that legislators have been asking for. According to William Duckworth, an associate professor at Creighton University, Americans spend about $580 million a year on replacing lost or stolen devices. Americans also spend nearly $4.8 billion in insurance on their gadgets. The concept of the kill switch is not just a gift from manufacturers and carriers to consumers—it is big business.
According to a survey by Duckworth of 1,200 smartphone users, 99% said that they think their carriers should be able to employ a kill switch on their lost and stolen devices and 83% said it would help deter smartphone theft. Really, why steal a smartphone if you can’t use it, reset it or resell it?
The question facing the voluntary agreement is if it will actually deter people from stealing smartphones. Thieves are, by definition, crafty people. At the very least, they are persistent. Thieves may go on stealing phones anyway because there is no guarantee that a user will even turn on the anti-theft mechanism provided by the new voluntary agreement.
How the anti-theft software will be implemented also remains to be seen. The operating systems all have their own versions of remote wipe plus cloud backup plans, like the ability to “Find My iPhone” and restore the phone’s data from iCloud, or from the Android Device Manager from Google.
Will Apple, Google and Microsoft build these anti-theft deterrents as default, no-cost features? Will it come from third-party security vendors like Lookout or Boxtone? How will the pre-installed anti-theft software work with current mobile device management software, like that from Good Technology, BlackBerry or Samsung’s Knox security suite?
For the carriers and the CTIA, all they really need to do is is let the manufacturers and platform providers do what they have been doing to protect users, all the while maintaining the status quo. For the carriers, the status quo is highly profitable.
The CTIA’s Song And Dance
Industry insiders figured the CTIA would fight against the notion of a kill switch, mostly because it has two board members that are part of the lucrative smartphone insurance trade. Duckworth estimates consumers could save nearly $2 billion by purchasing a less costly insurance policy if a kill-switch policy was implemented.
What the CTIA is doing here may be a pre-emptive strike. As a trade group, its primary duty is to protect its members and help create policy while avoiding regulation. The CTIA was not necessarily against a kill switch, but it wants the policies set on its own terms and not signed into actual law by either state or federal governments. Government regulation can be costly to companies, especially those in the infrastructure business like the cellular operators.
By coming up with its own voluntary agreement and getting all the major players on board, the CTIA can thwart actual government regulation while still protecting its members. And by getting the smartphone manufacturers and the platform providers (Apple, Google and Microsoft) on board, the CTIA is able to spread the responsibility of the anti-theft mechanism to corporations outside of the carriers, its primary constituents.