back to article Google, Microsoft to add remote KILL switch to phones

Pressure from US lawmakers has convinced Microsoft and Google to add a kill switch to their smartphone operating systems in a move to deter the larcenous. The pressure came from "Secure our Smartphones" (SOS), an organization set up by New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman and San Francisco District Attorney George …


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  1. corestore

    And what's the real subtext here...?

    Also gives the networks the ability to brick your phone if you do something they don't like, such as an unauthorized SIM unlock?

    1. Yet Another Anonymous coward Silver badge

      Re: And what's the real subtext here...?

      And the ability to block the import of any cheap Android phones that don't have this feature

    2. Paul Crawford Silver badge

      Re: And what's the real subtext here...?

      The networks are already able to block phones if they really want to. Even if they don't use the IMEI to block like they do in Europe, they can keep killing your subscriber account.

      This just makes the phone more obviously blocked so it can't be as easily or profitable re-sold. Of course there will be ways round it, but make it too much trouble and eventually the druggies, etc, doing the robbing will realise its not such a pot of gold (or heroin) after all.

      1. Matt 21

        Re: And what's the real subtext here...?

        Isn't it likely that the "durggies" (if that's who's doing this) are just going to steal something else instead? In which case we've just moved the problem elsewhere.

        I'm also a bit curious about these figures (for thefts by brand). Is it really the case that a mugger checks your make of phone first? Isn't a casual thief more likely to nick the phone and then chuck it away later if it gets blocked? Especially outside of the US where Androids are more popular, the thief is going to assume that most phones aren't Apples and not change their behaviour.

        1. Test Man

          Re: And what's the real subtext here...?

          >>Isn't it likely that the "durggies" (if that's who's doing this) are just going to steal something else instead? In which case we've just moved the problem elsewhere.

          Cool so let's keep the smartphones as unsecure as possible in order to attract thieves to that and not other objects.


          1. Matt 21

            Re: And what's the real subtext here...?

            No, instead let's change it and pat ourselves on the back telling ourselves that we've solved all our problems!

            My main point wasn't that adding a "kill switch" is a complete waste of time, my main point is that it doesn't address the biggest problem.

            My second point was to question the statistics being offered.

            I'll add a new point while I'm here: I wonder how long it will be before miscreants work out how to kill other peoples phones.

            1. jai

              Re: And what's the real subtext here...?

              well, that already happened with iPhones. but turns out, the miscreants weren't actually killing people's phones - they'd just phished their account ids and passwords and then activated the kill switch. which many were able to by-pass by a simple phone reset.

              So as long as Microsoft and Google implement it in a secure manner, it should remain sufficiently difficult for your miscreants to do it.

    3. NoneSuch Silver badge

      Re: And what's the real subtext here...?

      "Pressure from US lawmakers" makes me wonder if governments will have the ability to brick phones if they feel threatened. Would the Arab Spring have come about if the governments had this power?

      Is the US fearing an Arab Spring and trying to build in a kill switch to serve their interests?

      1. Yet Another Anonymous coward Silver badge

        Re: And what's the real subtext here...?

        They already have a kill switch for that - it's called the phone system.

        You don't need to build a secret kill switch into all TV sets to stop them hearing anti-government messages on Fox news, you just have a word with Fox news.

  2. hungee

    For the record

    I had this on my HTC Desire HD - circa 2010

    And any Android security client has this capability.

    But good on the Americans for inventing this...

    1. Hyper72

      Re: For the record

      The Americans are not smugly patting themselves on the back for having invented this feature; they merely mandate a preinstalled solution that allows a stolen phone to be locked in such a way that it can't even be re-flashed and thus reused elsewhere with a new sim. With many current Android solutions re-flashing is still possible and easy.

      Could it be abused by the network? Sure, but the networks have always been able to block phones (though not brick) which is why some countries have a big export of stolen phones, with blacklisted IMEI, to e.g. Eastern Europe.

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: For the record

      No you didn't.

  3. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Re. kill switch

    For once I actually approve of this, people are getting killed for their phones in SA etc.

    To deprive the thieving rogues of their money is poetic justice.

    The problem is even a broken phone has some value ie the screen, camera and battery.

    Do these store any sort of code or are they simply a one off part, I had this discussion about whether if a screen was changed it could still be tracked allowing stolen components to be traced somehow.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Re. kill switch

      Even if a phone has some value as parts, this makes it a lot more difficult to resell and thus greatly reduces the incentive to thieves to steal. Other than paranoid worries it is hard to see a downside to this move.

      1. Eddy Ito

        Re: Re. kill switch

        The salvage parts business is high hanging fruit as breaking a phone down is a good amount of work when you're trying to save as many "valuable" parts as you can. There's just no money in selling parts, consider screens are available on amazon for under $40 with free shipping and there are dozens of companies selling them in bulk on sites like alibaba for cheap money.

        1. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Re: Re. kill switch

          The parts stripping business would be mainly a concern for iPhones, since Apple sells a huge volume of the same model for several years, versus the bulk of the Android market which sells far lower volumes of far more models which are on the market for a much shorter time. You'd also have to be able to tell the cheap models from the expensive ones quickly by sight.

          1. M Gale

            Re: Re. kill switch

            You'd also have to be able to tell the cheap models from the expensive ones quickly by sight.

            The size of the big glowing rectangle on the front face is a generally good indicator.

            Anyway, even if the thief can only get a tenner out of the parts, that's four bags of smack and maybe worth it to some people. The point about phones being broken down and sold for parts is a very valid one. Cars nearly all have immobilizers these days, and yet, Grand Theft Auto continues to be more than just the name of a computer game.

            There's no substitute for a bit of common sense. Not leaving your phone on the dashboard in the middle of a city centre for instance.

  4. corestore


    There HAS to be some way of undoing the 'kill'. There HAS to be.


    The possibilities for mischief, false or erroneous kill requests etc. are legion.

    And, what happens the day crackers (or indeed enemy state hackers) get hold of the keys to the kill switch system? How many millions of phones could get 'killed' before they manage to turn the system off?

    It needs to be an on/off switch, not a deadly death permanent bricking.

    1. Pascal Monett Silver badge

      May I respectfully disagree

      If I get walloped by some street thug who wants to nick my phone, I prefer that I can alert the authorities and be damn sure that that phone gets permanently bricked without any chance of remission or revival.

      1. Joe Gurman

        Re: May I respectfully disagree

        Most of the iThingie liftings in San Francisco and New York were carried out by agile dodgers, often with accomplices who gently blocked the startled victims while the thief got away with the quickly grabbed loot. Relatively few knockings down or other assaults.

        My son had his iPhone nabbed on the NewYork subway a couple of months ago by a ten-year-old with fast feet but not much experience. Not only did the perp twerp not, apparently, know the phone would be bricked within minutes, but he tried the same thing on an older but very fit woman while the train was at an Upper West Side stop. She hoofed it up the steps after the perp, saw a police car sitting at a light, flagged them down, and two of New York's finest grabbed the erstwhile dodger. My son saw him in the less than friendly custody of his furious parents when he claimed the phone at the precinct house an hour or so later. Here's to bricking and the fitness of the wealthy.

  5. Joe Harrison


    My phone cost 89 quid at Tesco - why would I want a kill switch? Just buy another one.

    1. Horridbloke

      Re: Really?

      If all phones have a kill switch you won't have to buy another one, because the existing one won't be nicked. In addition your car window won't need replacing the one time you accidentally leave your phone on display in your car and you'll be saved a night in A&E when a bad person doesn't decide to take your phone off you by force.

      I've had both those experiences - through matters other than phones - and don't recommend them.

    2. Test Man

      Re: Really?

      My phone cost £400+

      So I couldn't care less about your £89 cheapo phone.

  6. pisquee

    Just expand the current system of blocking IMEI numbers, and mandate that all networks worldwide do it and share the blocked IMEI numbers. No involvment needed from MS, Google, or Apple.

  7. D@v3

    correlation vs causation

    Is it at all possible that the decrease in Apple thefts, and the increase in Android thefts, is because there are fewer Apple phones around, and more Android phones, than there used to be?

    Also, a problem that I remember someone telling me about previously ( a member of the police force I seem to remember) is that quite often, a street robbery / mugging, is either going to happen, or it won't. What make of phone you have (probably in your pocket) doesn't come into it.

    If upon being mugged you produce a phone that the assailant won't be able to make much / any money from, they will take it anyway, so that you have no convenient way of calling the police to report the crime.

    May be total BS, but sounds not entirely unreasonable, other than it credits these crim's with enough smarts to realise the benefits of removing lines of communication.

    1. Vector

      Re: correlation vs causation

      Yeah, I just have a really hard time believing the specificity of the report as quoted in the article. It sounds like thieves are running around checking phones and saying to themselves "Nope, don't steal that one, it's an iPhone. Yep, grab that one, it's a Samsung." I just have a really hard time believing that scenario. I'm sure there's a little of it going on, but surely not enough to show these levels as causality.

      Even if there is some causal relation, might it just be a temporary drop as the underground adjusts to the new reality?

      Add to that the recent spate of ransomware attacks against this very iPhone feature and I still think this is a poorly executed knee-jerk reaction to the problem which is going to come back to bite us all in new and unforeseen ways.

  8. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Is there not an NRA phone with in-built gun to stop this sort of thing?

    1. Stratman

      Let's hope there is...

      .... and there's a Tom and Jerry or Roadrunner moment when it rings.

  9. RyokuMas Silver badge


    Now we know what the next generation of Android ransomware will be threatening us with!

  10. GrumpyOldMan

    Blackberry Protect has been around for a while now.

  11. NP-Hardass

    Kill switch is significantly different than provider lockout

    Kill switch renders the device inoperable, where as network blocking is only the connection between a device and a network. Case in point: Arab Spring saw governments shutting down networks to prevent communication between protesters, and protesters rolling in mobile cell sites to bypass the govt controlled networks. Kill switch could allow the government to prevent any comm, through networks in their control or not.

    1. Gannon (J.) Dick

      Re: Kill switch is significantly different than provider lockout

      Thanks NP, I was writing while you were answering my real question ... see below ...

      What good is it for a Government to cut their citizens off from Emergency Services over Commercial Disputes ?

      Here's your upvote.

  12. Gannon (J.) Dick

    Cell Phones

    Long ago, in the US, any (intact) cell phone had to be able to make a (free) call to the emergency number (9-1-1, Police, Fire, Ambulance, etc.)

    The utility of this business-hating, anti-capitalist, satanistic policy was pretty straight forward, it saved beau coup meatbag lives and property. Quaint when that mattered; it was the closest the Consumer Electronics Industry ever got to Noblesse oblige.

    Did Europe have the same rule ?

    How do you do this with a bricked phone ?

    1. The obvious

      Re: Cell Phones

      Yes, Europe does have the same rule.

      You pick up a phone anywhere in Europe dial 112 or also you can use the local emergency number if one exists (999 in the UK.)

      It's nice to know that folks from the colonies are still trying to keep up with the developed world.

      1. Gannon (J.) Dick

        Re: Cell Phones

        So, how does that work with a bricked phone ? Especially when Authorities can brick a phone ?

  13. rtb61

    Just to be clear, exactly what are the penalties for falsely killing your phone.

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