For many people, one of the most disastrous things that could happen to them when they're out and about is if they were to get their smartphone stolen. These days, the gadgets are so much more than just a way of keeping in touch with your mates – they're your camera, your shopping cart, your entertainment centre and your social hub. So when somebody pinches it, it can be a real disaster.
And its a problem that's been getting worse in recent years. A new report by the Office of the New York State Attorney General, in partnership with the Mayor of London's office, revealed that in the UK capital, smartphones are one of the biggest drivers of theft, with nearly half of robberies last year involving a handset. Despite a successful 2012 crackdown on mobile device theft, the Metropolitan Police still received over 100,000 reports of stolen smartphones in 2013.
So with this being such a big issue, it's not wonder authorities have been keen to crack down in on. Last year, Mayor of London Boris Johnson joined up with a US-led initiative called Secure Our Smartphones (SOS) to push for new technology to be added to all smartphones in order to crack down on the issue – a so-called 'kill switch'. And it seems as though their campaign is having an effect.
How does it work?
A kill switch is a feature on a phone that can shut down the device and prevent it from working when activated remotely – essentially turning an expensive piece of technology into a shiny black paperweight. There are two ways of achieving this – a 'hard' switch, with is favoured by legislators and groups like SOS, that renders a device permanently unusable, or a 'soft' switch that blocks unauthorised users, yet can be unlocked with the right code.
Soft switches might be less secure, but would mean that if a stolen phone is recovered, a user can pick it up and get on with their life without losing any of their data or having to get a new handset. However, these can come with their own sets of problems – such as an incident last month, when an enterprising hacker managed to break into Apple's iCloud software and lock people's phones by changing their Apple ID password, demanding a ransom in order to unlock them again.
Is it effective?
One company to embrace the idea of a kill switch in order to crack down on smartphone theft was Apple, which introduced an 'Activation Lock' feature last year as part of its iOS 7 update.
The New York State Attorney General's report suggested this has had an immediate positive impact for owners of Apple devices. In London, it claimed iPhone thefts declined by 24 per cent in the six months after Activation Lock was added. And before you think this might be just down to a drop in crime overall, it also stated thefts of Samsung devices actually increased by three per cent over the same period. A similar story was also found in New York and San Francisco, where iPhone robberies fell by 19 per cent and 38 per cent respectively, while Samsung thefts also saw a rise.
SOS stated this is proof the technology works, but it wants to see it go further. At present, tools such as Activation Lock are opt-in, meaning users have to actually set it up in order for their phone to be locked.
"This configuration reduces participation and weakens the kill switch's potential to deter crime. Given early signs that kill switches like Apple's Activation Lock are effective, there is no excuse for letting unnecessary barriers impede widespread use," the group said, calling for such features to be switched on by default.
What are the next steps?
Following the positive results seen in iPhone thefts, there have been calls for the technology to be made more widespread, and opinion is changing. Previously, one of the biggest voices opposed to the implementation of kill switches was the US trade association for mobile operators, the CTIA. It had stated this technology "isn't the answer", because of the potential for hackers to replicate the signal and remotely disable non-stolen phones, while 'hard' kill switches would still render a phone unusable even if a phone was later found.
However, it has since softened its stance and formally dropped its opposition to the technology earlier this year – paving the way for more phonemakers to implement kill switches in their devices. And this week, it was announced that both Google and Microsoft will incorporate kill switches in their next operating systems updates.
This means all three major phone platforms – iOS, Android and Windows Phone – will have such options available. And as these make up the vast majority of smartphones in use, it could be about to get a lot harder for phone thieves to make a profit.