U.S. cellphone carriers were offered a technology last year that supporters say would dramatically cut incidents of smartphone theft, but the carriers turned it down, according to sources with knowledge of the proposal.
The so-called "kill-switch" software allows consumers to remotely wipe and render their phones useless if stolen. Law enforcement and politicians believe the incentive for stealing a smartphone or tablet would be greatly reduced if the technology became standard, because the devices could quickly be rendered useless.
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A proposal by Samsung to the five largest U.S. carriers would have made the LoJack software, developed by Canada's Absolute Software, a standard component on many of its Android phones in the U.S.
The proposal followed pressure from the offices of the San Francisco District Attorney and the New York Attorney General for the industry to do more to prevent phone theft. In many major U.S. cities, more than half of all street theft involves a smartphone or tablet. A handful of people have been killed for their devices.
On July 18, 2013, Samsung and Absolute met with technical experts from the Northern California Regional Intelligence Center, a high-tech crimes unit, and other law enforcement representatives in San Francisco. The experts were given phones with the system installed and attempted to circumvent the technology. At the same meeting, Apple demonstrated its yet-to-be-released Activation Lock feature, which provides a similar kill-switch function for iOS 7 devices.
In September, Samsung proposed to the carriers that the software be installed on its phones, said John Livingstone, who was CEO of Absolute at the time.
To work, the LoJack system requires two components. The first is code buried with the phone's firmware that ensures it remains active even if the operating system is reinstalled. The second is a desktop app through which users control the software. Most cellphones in the U.S. are sold by carriers, so their approval is required for apps to be pre-installed on devices.
Samsung's proposal was unique. LoJack typically costs $30 a year and includes physical retrieval of the phone if it's located, or a payment to the user of up to $600. Samsung offered to provide the kill-switch portion of the system at no charge -- allowing a stolen phone to be disabled -- and giving consumers the option of paying for the retrieval service, said Livingstone.
"Samsung took it out to the carriers," he said. "They proposed the Absolute LoJack kill switch to the big five phone companies. At that time, the carriers were not interested."
As a result, only the firmware portion of the LoJack system is pre-installed in a handful of Samsung phones and tablets. For it to be used, consumers have to download the app and subscribe to the service. There is no free version.
Samsung declined to comment for this article, citing "confidential business conversations" with Verizon. Absolute declined to "speculate" about any business deals between Samsung and the carriers.
Verizon Wireless declined several requests for an interview. In a statement, the carrier said it supports a free kill-switch for Android phones but that "no manufacturer has yet made one available to us and press reports to the contrary are inaccurate."