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Smartphone Industry Fails to Kill the "Kill Switch," Adopts It Instead

After years of courtroom battles between the world's major cell phone manufacturers, it seems that they've finally agreed on something. In a reversal of their refusals to require a "kill switch" on smartphones, they recently pledged to include the feature on all new smartphones, starting in 2015. It's not a physical switch, though. Instead, as part of the phone's native software, this system would allow owners to disable their phones and erase their data—without actually having the phone in hand.

Why is this important?

Imagine having your smartphone stolen, or just losing it. If you don't use a password or other protection to activate the phone, then anyone off the street has instant access to your entire contacts list, e-mail, calendar, passwords, bank accounts, prescriptions, and other personal data. Even if you use a pin number or pattern recognition to "lock" your phone, these systems aren't foolproof. Given enough time, they can be hacked, and the phone thief would still see all your information.

To keep your info secure, developers have released a number of anti-theft apps that, if they're to be believed, will allow you to control your phone via the Internet. If your phone falls into the wrong hands, you can command your phone to erase all sensitive data. It's hard to say how well these apps work, but even if they worked perfectly, many people don't even know they exist.

To combat this problem, the new kill switch will soon be part of the industry standard for cell phones. This should make those anti-theft apps unnecessary while making the phones virtually useless to the thief. The owner's personal information can remain protected, and the phone cannot be reactivated without consent from an authorized user.

Despite the widespread adoption, the feature remains controversial. Law enforcement officials are hopeful that this will reverse the recent trend of increasing smartphone-related thefts and assaults. Politicians also support this initiative; many have proposed bills at the state level that would make the kill switch mandatory.

The smartphone industry has resisted such interference, expressing concern that new problems could arise from phones being accidentally disabled.

In a compromise, the manufacturers have voluntarily agreed to make the kill switch standard. However, critics claim that this isn't enough. Lawmakers fear that since the kill switch system must first be activated by the phone's owner, many individuals will wrongly believe that their information is safe—and then find that they cannot use the technology.

Beginning in July 2015, the kill switch feature will be available on smartphones produced by Apple, Samsung, Google, Microsoft, HTC, and Nokia. The five largest cellular carriers in the U.S. will cooperate as well. Of these companies, Apple is closest to already having the technology; its iOS 7 offers an "Activation Lock," which largely meets the requirements of the new standard.