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Smartphone makers embracing theft defense

By next summer, most new smartphones may no longer be quite so attractive to thieves.

Microsoft and Google said earlier this month that phones using their operating systems will have a so-called kill switch that can render the devices unusable after they have been reported stolen.

Apple’s iPhone has had a kill switch, called Activation Lock, since September.

The plans for additional security measures come on the heels of new data in New York, San Francisco and London that law enforcement officials believe supports their long-held belief that a kill switch will make smartphones less appealing to thieves.

Comparing data in the six months before and after Apple released its anti-theft feature, police said iPhone robberies in San Francisco dropped 38 percent. In London, they fell 24 percent. In New York City, robberies of Apple products dropped 19 percent and grand larcenies of Apple products dropped 29 percent in the first five months of 2014, compared with the same time period from 2013. By comparison, thefts of Samsung products increased 51 percent in the first five months of 2014. Samsung introduced a kill switch for its Galaxy S5 device in April, so it will be some time until its effect on theft rates can be evaluated.

A kill switch is software that lets consumers lock down a phone after the device has been reported stolen; users can reactivate the phone only with the correct password or personal identification number. That makes it difficult to sell on the black market.

“The introduction of kill switches has clearly had an effect on the conduct of smartphone thieves,” said Eric T. Schneiderman, New York’s attorney general. “If these can be canceled like the equivalent of canceling a credit card, these are going to be the equivalent of stealing a paperweight.”

Other factors could have contributed to the decrease in iPhone thefts. Police and tech companies have tried harder during the last year to educate consumers on additional security measures to protect phones.

Apple said that its kill switch software, Activation Lock, was aimed at preventing unauthorized access to users’ iPhones and iPads. Apple also said that Find My iPhone, a software feature for tracking lost or stolen Apple devices, has been available since 2009.

“Apple has led the industry in helping customers protect their lost or stolen devices,” said Trudy Muller, an Apple spokeswoman.

Samsung said that it would continue to work closely with the carriers, Schneiderman in New York and George Gascón, San Francisco’s district attorney, toward preventing phone theft.

The CTIA, a trade organization for the wireless industry, had been resistant to calls for legally requiring kill switches. But Jamie Hastings, vice president of external and state affairs for CTIA, said that the group was helping solve the problem of phone theft by offering resources that educate consumers. For example, it created a website, beforeyouloseit.org, that has information about anti-theft apps people can install.

“We remain committed to helping law enforcement and consumers deter smartphone thefts,” Hastings said.

Gascón has been one of the most vocal supporters of a kill switch. He and Schneiderman collaborated to form the Secure Our Smartphones initiative to press businesses to create a technical way to dissuade thieves from stealing phones.He said he hoped all manufacturers would include a kill switch turned on by default on all smartphones so consumers did not have to figure out how to use it. In the iPhone, for example, it is not turned on by default.

“Many consumers might not be tech-savvy enough to do this,” Gascón said.

He added that he still thought it was necessary for there to be laws requiring kill switches in phones, similar to how seatbelts eventually became legally required inside cars.