Smartphone 'kill switch' effectively thwarts thieves

A report suggests that Apple's introduction of a smartphone 'kill switch' resulted in a significant drop in phone thefts across America. That's good news, but the report also shines light on another issue: The consumer tendency to forgo phone locks for convenience.

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Smartphones thefts dropped sharply last year, thanks to security innovations such as Apple's "Find My Phone" remote-locator feature. However, a surprising number of consumers still don't protect their phones with password locks, according to a survey from Consumer Reports.

An estimated 2.1 million Americans had phones stolen last year, down from 3.1 million in 2013, a drop of just under a third, the consumer advocacy group reports. That's especially good news because smartphones thefts can quickly turn violent, and in isolated cases, fatal.

The survey doesn't detail the type of phones that were stolen, but iPhone thefts likely dropped faster than stolen Androids because Apple moved faster than Google to implement antitheft features that are now recommended by law enforcement.

After Apple added a "kill switch" to its Find My iPhone app in 2013, police departments around the country saw iPhone thefts drop. In San Francisco, for example, cellphone robberies decreased by 27 percent in 2014, while iPhone thefts dropped by 40 percent, according to the city's district attorney.

Android's Lollipop 5.1 OS, which is available for select Androids and will continue to roll out to addition devices this summer, reportedly contains a kill switch, but it has to be implemented by device manufacturers, which could take a while. In the meantime, there are third-party Android apps you can download that offer similar features.

Smartphone owners have been able to remotely wipe phone data for years, and that's a good way to protect personal information. But it's not a strong theft deterrent. Phone thieves want to sell their purloined goods, and the kill switch effectively "kills" stolen phones. Dead or "bricked" devices aren't worth much on the black market.

Minnesota and California passed laws that require manufacturers to make progress on installing antitheft features by July, and similar legislation is being discussed in Congress, though nothing has passed through committee.

This is good news, but I'm disturbed by another finding in the Consumer Reports survey: Only 46 percent of respondents say they set a screen lock using a four-digit PIN or stronger method, such as a lengthy password or fingerprint.

There's no excuse for not using a password on your phone. Forgoing a password puts your personal data at risk and keeps the black market for stolen phones alive. Don't think phone thieves are too dumb to know about this stuff, either. Many stolen phones are sent in bulk to overseas markets, so the thefts are obviously organized (if not carried out) by people smarter than your average mugger.

Protecting your phone is relatively easy. The slight inconvenience of having to enter a password, or use a fingerprint reader, is more than outweighed by the benefits of a screen lock.

This story, "Smartphone 'kill switch' effectively thwarts thieves" was originally published by CIO.