Small businesses could benefit from wireless industry 'kill switch' plans

Participants like Apple, AT&T, Google, and Verizon Wireless agree to provide "baseline anti-theft tool"

The kill switch application wireless carriers and device manufacturers plan to make available next year for new smartphones could benefit small businesses on a tight budget, an expert says.

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The wireless trade group CTIA announced Tuesday the "Smartphone Anti-Theft Voluntary Commitment" signed by more than dozen companies, including Apple, AT&T, Google, Microsoft, Samsung, and Verizon Wireless. The participants agreed to provide a "baseline anti-theft tool" that is preloaded or downloadable for smartphones built after July 2015.

The software would let smartphone users remotely wipe personal data, render the smartphone inoperable, prevent reactivation without the authorized user's permission, and reverse the interoperability if the phone was recovered.

A TECHanlysis survey of IT professionals found that only 39 percent of small businesses could remotely wipe data from a lost or stolen smartphone, compared to 54 percent of large companies.

"That's a big gap," Bob O'Donnell, analyst for the research firm, said. "So, this would be particularly important for smaller businesses that don't have that capability."

For large companies, the anti-theft tool would not help in securing apps and data or enforcing company policies on smartphones used to connect to corporate networks, Nagi Prabhu, vice president for enterprise mobility management at CA Technologies said. For that, mobile device management software is still needed.

"Securing devices, apps and data is one of the biggest challenges of implementing an enterprise mobility strategy," Prabhu said.

The CTIA initiative is a counter to multiple bills in state legislatures that would mandate the installation of software that a smartphone owner could use to make the device unusable, if it is loss or stolen. Law enforcement agencies support the technology as a way to discourage thieves and muggers.

The phone industry has opposed such legislation, arguing that kill switches would make it easier for hackers to disable phones and would make lost phones unusable, even if they were found later under furniture or a jacket pocket.

Nevertheless, pressure has grown to where the latest initiative was seen as necessary by the wireless industry.

Critics supported the plan, but said the industry should go further by activating the tool by default, rather than have smartphone users turn it on or download it. The reason is people seldom opt-in to security features.

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"We strongly urge CTIA and its members to make their anti-theft features enabled by default on all devices, rather than relying on consumers to opt-in," New York Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman and San Francisco District Attorney George Gascón said in a joint statement. "The industry also has a responsibility to protect its consumers now and not wait until next year."

Experts who support the initiative favored providing smartphone users with a choice rather than forcing the features on them. "How much of a nanny state are we going to become," Roger Entner, analyst for Recon Analytics, said.

Copyright © 2014 IDG Communications, Inc.

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