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A Smartphone Kill Switch Won't Stop Smartphone Theft

Unrealistic Expectations

For several months, New York State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman has been pressuring smartphone makers and cellular carriers to build a "kill switch" that would permanently disable stolen handsets, and hence deter smartphone theft by destroying the resale value.

"The epidemic of violent street crime involving the theft and resale of mobile devices is a very real and growing threat in communities all across America," Schneiderman said during a June press conference announcing his "Secure Our Smartphones" initiative.

In open letters he wrote to Apple, Microsoft, Google and Samsung, Schneiderman asks why such technology can't quickly be developed.

"I seek to understand why companies that can develop sophisticated handheld electronics, such as the products manufactured by Apple, cannot also create technology to render stolen devices inoperable and thereby eliminate the expanding black market on which they are sold," he wrote.

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But security experts say a smartphone kill switch, short of an explosive "Mission: Impossible" physical self-destruct mechanism, probably wouldn't work.

"A kill switch for mobile phones makes no sense to me," said Chester Wisniewski, senior security adviser at the Vancouver, B.C. office of the British anti-virus firm Sophos.

And that might be a good thing. If the kill switch did work, it could become a ripe target for hackers and pranksters, who would find ways to remotely turn off people's phones.

"Everything could go wrong, but little right," Wisniewski said. "Next thing you know, police will want carmakers to put kill switches in every vehicle. Totally unnecessary."