Gascón, who has become one of the most outspoken members of the law enforcement community on the issue, is proposing the electronic equivalent of a self-destruct command. "What we need is a technical solution, we need a kill switch that, when a phone gets reported stolen, the manufacturer or the carrier or a combination of both are going to render that phone inoperable anywhere," he said.
To work, it would have to rewrite the phone's basic software so the device becomes completely useless and cannot be restored, even if it was later recovered. Think of it as a "nuclear wipe" option.
Carrier resist the notion of a "nuclear wipe" option
Gascón says his message hasn't been received well by the carriers. "I started last year by meeting with one of the carriers," he said. "They seemed to be genuinely concerned and wanted to set up a follow-up meeting."
The second meeting, between Gascón, representatives of the four major carriers, and the CTIA didn't get far. "It became very clear to me from the beginning, as the lobbying group took the lead on this, that they felt they had done all they were going to do," he said.
The CTIA disagrees with his assertion."I really think it's important for people to know that we recognize this is important for law enforcement," said Guttman-McCabe. But he doesn't support the idea of an electronic kill switch. "Think of all the times people lose their phone and then find it, and imagine how consumer-unfriendly it would be if the carrier hit a kill switch," he said. "All of a sudden, you have a high-end smartphone that's useless, and you have to buy an unsubsidized phone." For now, the CTIA is sticking to its stolen phone database plan and isn't looking at other possible solutions.
The kill switch wanted by Gascón would probably not be perfect, but could help, said Lookout's Mahaffey. "It would be very difficult to build anything that is impossible to take off a device," he said. "You can make it so difficult that all but the most sophisticated thieves can get around it. As we've seen with jailbreaking, no matter how much effort Apple put in, there will always be a way around it."
For now, the best thing phone users can do is try to avoid having their phones snatched in the first place. "If you need to talk on your phone, we ask that you just step to the side of a building, put your back against the building, make your phone call or make your text, but then also be aware of what's going on around you as well. That makes a huge difference," said Officer Dennis Toomer of the San Francisco Police Department. He said most thefts occur because users are texting or talking on phones while walking and not paying attention to their surroundings. "Day or night, you should always be aware of what's going on around you," he said.