Google and Microsoft are doing something they've never done before -- incorporating a "kill switch" into the next generation of their mobile operating systems. Apple already has a kill switch in iOS.
That's significant, considering that Google's Android runs on more than half the smartphones in the U.S. and Microsoft Windows Phone runs on Nokia's handheld devices. The news means that 97 percent of smartphones in the United States will soon have a kill switch, according to New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman and San Francisco District Attorney George Gascón.
"The commitments of Google and Microsoft are giant steps toward consumer safety, and the statistics released today illustrate the stunning effectiveness of kill switches," Schneiderman said. "In just one year, the Secure Our Smartphones Initiative has made tremendous strides towards curtailing the alarming trend of violent smartphone theft."
A "kill switch" on a mobile phone allows the owner to remotely disable the phone and erase or block access to personal data if it is lost or stolen.
Tough on Crime
At its one-year anniversary, the Secure Our Smartphones Initiative is putting out a report chock full of crime stats. For example, after Apple added its kill switch, robberies and grand larcenies involving iPhones dropped dramatically. At the same time, violent crimes against people carrying phones without a kill switch surged.
Entitled, "Secure Our Smartphone Initiative: One Year Later," the report offers never-before-seen data from police departments in New York City, San Francisco and London. In New York, robberies and grand larcenies involving Apple products dropped 19 percent and 29 percent in the first five months of 2014 compared with the year-ago period. Meanwhile, robberies and grand larcenies involving a Samsung smartphone, which did not have a kill switch during much of this time, increased by over 40 percent.
The report offers similar results in San Francisco and London. In San Francisco, for example, iPhone robberies declined 38 percent, while robberies of Samsung devices increased by 12 percent. In London, Apple thefts dropped 24 percent, while Samsung thefts increased 3 percent.
"We can make the violent epidemic of smartphone theft a thing of the past and these numbers prove that," Gascón said. "It was evident from day one that a technological solution was not only possible, but that it would s erve as an effective deterrent to this growing threat. This past year we successfully held the wireless industry's feet to the fire and it's already having an impact for consumers."
Saves Money, Too
Beyond reducing crime, the smartphone kill switch could also save consumers money. Research from Creighton University suggests that the concept, which would make it impossible to resell stolen smartphones, could save consumers $2.6 billion a year. William Duckworth of the Heider College of Business at Creighton, pointed to a recent report from comScore, estimating that more than 145 million Americans carry smartphones. And, he argued, those smartphones make consumers easy targets for theft.
"If the kill switch significantly reduced cell phone theft, consumers could save about $580 million a year from not needing to replace stolen phones and another $2 billion a year by switching from premium cell phone insurance (offered by the wireless carriers) to more basic coverage offered by third parties such as Apple and SquareTrade," Duckworth said. "My research suggests that at least half of smartphone owners would in fact reduce their insurance coverage if the kill switch reduced the prevalence of cell phone theft."
We caught up with Rob Enderle, principal analyst at the Enderle Group, to get his take on the decision from Microsoft and Google to add a kill switch to the next iteration of their mobile operating systems. He's not surprised.
"Cell phone theft has become a serious problem largely because it is trending to become increasingly violent," Enderle told us. "Moves like this potentially destroy the value of stolen phones, which should make people using them, particularly in large cities, far safer."