Smartphone thieves may now think twice about snatching your Android phone, but they won’t be completely deterred yet.
Google released Android 5.0 Lollipop Wednesday, and for the first time, it lets users to enable a “kill switch” on their phones. The feature, dubbed “factory reset protection,” requires a Google ID and password before a phone can be reset, and only works when a phone passcode is enabled.
The kill switch is a great step toward making smartphone theft less enticing — when a stolen phone can’t be wiped clean and resold, it becomes a useless brick. But it’s missing one important component: the kill switch is still opt-in.
Kill switches work on two levels: damage control and loss prevention. If your phone’s already been stolen, a kill switch can prevent your data from falling into the wrong hands by letting you remotely wipe your phone — but that’s kind of a last resort. The far better outcome they produce is a deterrent to theft: if enough of the phones are likely to be useless to thieves, they won’t be stolen in the first place.
An opt-in kill switch, like the one Google rolled out Wednesday, is great for damage control (though many of the features were already available to savvy users through Android Device Manager). But opt-in does nothing for deterrence. Not enough users enable the optional feature, so thieves still think they have a good chance of nabbing a vulnerable phone — and yours, even if it’s safe, might be targeted anyway. Google’s kill switch is also weakened because it’s only in effect when the screen is locked, meaning it can be disabled by a thief who snatches a phone from someone who’s using it and knows to keep it from locking.
Apple’s been way ahead of the pack when it comes to kill switches. Its version, Activation Lock, was introduced in 2013 as opt-in and was made opt-out for all iPhone 6 and iPhone 6 Plus models. Even when Activation Lock was optional, it had a huge effect on iPhone thefts. They plummeted, while Samsung phone thefts shot up. (Samsung has since introduced its own kill switch.)
All this talk of opt-in and opt-out should be moot by July 2015, when California bill SB 962 goes into effect. The law requires that all smartphones sold in California (so, basically, all smartphones, since the companies likely won’t distinguish California phones from the rest) have a kill switch set to default “on.” Apple’s already there, and Google will presumably get there in the next year. Microsoft also has promised to add a kill switch to its Windows phones.
Law enforcement officials also felt Google’s kill switch was a good step forward, but not far enough.
“In order for these theft-deterrents to effectively end the epidemic, they must be enabled by default so violent criminals lack the incentive to steal any smartphone,” said San Francisco District Attorney George Gascon and New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman in a joint statement. “We will continue to encourage every actor in the smartphone industry – including Google – to take the necessary, additional step of ensuring this technology is opt-out on all devices.”