Never Forget That Wireless Carriers Are Evil

In today’s edition of “U.S. wireless carriers are dicks”, we’re going to look at the latest in how carriers and the CTIA are protecting valuable revenue streams by blocking features that would curb smartphone theft.

Over 1.6 million U.S. consumers had a smartphone stolen in 2012. One in three thefts within the U.S. involved a mobile gadget. Speaking to CBS This Morning today, San Francisco’s Attorney General stated that 50% of their robberies and thefts involved a smartphone. It’s an epidemic and wireless carriers are dismissing the solution.

According to New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, officials from in New York, San Francisco, London and Philadelphia called on the wireless industry to present a solution. Samsung did just that earlier this year for its own devices, but the five largest U.S. wireless carriers denied it their customers.

According to emails obtained by CBS, AT&T, Verizon, T-Mobile, Sprint, and U.S. Cellular, all decided to not include the feature in the Samsung handsets sold by each carrier. Meanwhile, the CTIA, the trade association for wireless carriers, helped the FCC and certain police departments create online databases for stolen phones.

In theory, this list — compiled for, managed by, and unique to each wireless carrier — would prevent stolen smartphones from being reactivated. But it doesn’t protect against data theft, and is largely useless if the phone is shipped out of the country. A kill switch is needed and placed in the hands of smartphone owners.

Samsung and Apple both moved to implement a kill switch within their devices earlier this year. Apple had more luck than Samsung. Since a staggering majority of Samsung smartphones sold in the U.S. run Android, wireless carriers are able to modify the software before selling the device to consumers. U.S. carriers simply removed the kill switch.

Apple’s solution is not perfect but is a big step forward. The Find My iPhone application allows consumers to locate and remotely wipe phones. Then, new with iOS 7, the original owner’s credentials have to be entered before the phone can be reactivated — even after the phone was completely reset. Meanwhile, Google offers a similar feature baked into Android, including the ability to remotely locate and wipe a stolen phone. But once the device is remotely erased, it can be reactivated under a new account.

It’s unclear exactly why wireless carriers denied thoughtful security features to their customers, but preserving profit is main theory. Each carrier offers insurance for stolen phones. And what’s a person supposed to do when their phone is stolen? Walk around unfettered like it’s 1995? No, they go get a new phone at either the full price, sign a new contact to get the phone at a discount, or pay the deductible on that insurance plan.

It’s too early to tell if the CTIA’s national database will curb smartphone thefts. Logic seems to dictate that it won’t, though. The thieves will just sell them overseas, out of reach of the CTIA’s databases and the wireless carriers they represent. Think selling internationally is hard? Replace Craigslist with eBay in that illicit workflow and voilĂ  — thieves are good to go once more.

The wireless industry as a whole needs to let go and put more power in the hands of the owners. Give owners a native kill switch, a software solution baked into the core of the phone, which upon activation, would completely brick the phone if it gets stolen.

The auto industry was once plagued by stolen radios. The problem was solved when car manufacturers took a hard stance and made it so a stolen radio would not work outside of the original car. But don’t expect the wireless industry to take such a hard-line. An car owner with a broken window missing radio does not go out and buy an expensive new car. They buy a new window and radio.