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Crusade for smartphone 'kill switch' heats up, but would it work?

Law enforcement officials are pushing smartphone manufacturers to develop a kill switch to disable stolen phones. They see it as a way to stem rampant smartphone theft.

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San Francisco District Attorney George Gascon speaks Thursday in New York at the launch of the 'Secure Our Smartphones' initiative, which is aimed at encouraging the cellphone industry to adapt technology to deter cellphone theft.

Bebeto Matthews/AP

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The crusade to force smartphone manufacturers to put a "kill switch" on their devices began in earnest Thursday.

A coalition of public prosecutors, police, consumer advocates, and politicians from more than a dozen states announced the creation of SOS – Secure Our Smartphones – which is aimed at stamping out what officials called an “epidemic” of smartphone robberies. Citing statistics that 1 on 3 robberies nationwide involves a cellphone theft, they said a kill switch on smartphones – essentially rendering it useless – would eliminate the incentive for would-be thieves.

But industry watchers say SOS will not be enough to motivate the smartphone industry, which has so far decided against introducing such technology. Moreover, others worry about the pitfalls such technology might create, such as the possibility of smartphones being "killed" by accident.

“There is no question that something needs to be done,” says Peter LaMotte, a digital communications expert at Levick, a public relations firm. But to get the industry to respond, “there has to be a huge public outcry, and one news conference is not a huge outcry.”

The press conference Thursday preceded a “Smartphone Summit” with representatives from top smartphone manufactures such as Microsoft, Google, Apple, and Samsung. "The industry has a moral and social obligation to fix this problem,” said San Francisco District Attorney George Gascon.

The kill switch capability already exists, say software industry analysts. It would work by identifying a specific phone that has been stolen and then shutting it down. For the such a program to work, though, all the providers would have to be on board, otherwise a thief could just switch carriers to use the phone.

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