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Mobile carriers pull the plug on anti-theft "kill switch" for smartphones

Efforts to add a "kill switch" to cell phones that would brick stolen or lost devices has reportedly been sidelined due to opposition from cell phone carriers.

The office of San Francisco Attorney General George Gascón today tweeted that wireless carriers rejected a mobile kill-switch proposal developed by Samsung, and suggested that the carriers are prioritising profits over safety.

Gascón has been working with New York Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman on the Secure Our Smartphones (SOS) initiative, a joint effort between state and local officials that is working to combat gadget theft.

SOS got started when Schneiderman penned letters to Apple, Motorola, Samsung, and Microsoft and asked them to collaborate with his office to come up with ways to deter criminals from stealing their most popular gadgets.

Apple has since incorporated a kill switch of sorts for iOS 7 devices; stolen or lost iPhones cannot be reactivated without the owner's Apple ID and password. The approach earned rave reviews from Gascón and Schneiderman.

Samsung, meanwhile, has also been working on its own option.

"Samsung takes the issue of smartphone theft very seriously, and we are continuing to enhance our solutions," a spokeswoman said today. "We are working with the leaders of the Secure Our Smartphones (SOS.) Initiative to incorporate the perspective of law enforcement agencies. We will continue to work with them and our wireless carrier partners towards our common goal of stopping smartphone theft."

At this point, however, the carriers do not appear to see eye to eye with phone makers and the SOS initiative. As first reported by the New York Times, Gascón suggested that "the carriers are concerned that the software would eat into the profit they make from the insurance programs many consumers buy to cover lost or stolen phones."

CTIA, the wireless trade association that represents all the major US carriers, said in a June fact sheet, however, that kill switches pose "very serious risks."

"If created, this capability would be in every handset and the 'kill' message would be known to every operator and therefore could not be kept secret," CTIA argued. If that falls into the wrong hands, it "could be used to disable entire groups of customers, such as Department of Defense, Homeland Security or emergency services/law enforcement."

A disabled device would not be able to make emergency calls, CTIA said, while those who disable lost phones would have to pay hundreds of dollars for a new device, even if they found the old phone.

In a Tuesday statement, Jamie Hastings, vice president of external and state affairs for CTIA, pushed for "a proactive, multifaceted approach to dry up the aftermarket for stolen phones."

That includes the continued development of a stolen gadget database.

"We're pleased the carriers met all of the deadlines so far, and are on track to meet the final one to integrate the 4G/LTE databases by November 30, 2013," Hastings said.

She also urged consumers to educate themselves about available tracking apps, and be wary of their surroundings.

Finally, CTIA reiterated its support for a bill from Sen. Chuck Schumer, which would impose tough penalties on those who steal devices or modify them illegally.

Check out our guides on what to do if your iPhone or Android phone get nicked.

Image: Flickr (Meanest Indian)