Kill switch for smartphones coming in 2015

In April, a coalition of mobile network operators, device manufacturers and operating system companies came together with the CTIA and drafted the Smartphone Anti-Theft Voluntary Commitment with the intent of curbing smartphone theft in the United States.

Included in the commitment is the controversial "kill switch" which would enable a remote wipe of a user's cell phone with consent. Legislation on the state and federal levels has discussed the feature but there hasn't been a commitment proposed like this before.

Over 3 million smartphones were stolen in 2013 and nearly half of those were never recovered. The kill switch is an option for consumers to protect their devices and, more importantly, the data stored on those devices.

The commitment describes the kill switch as "a baseline anti-theft tool that is preloaded or downloadable on wireless smartphones" designed to perform these four features:

• Remotely wipe a user's data, including information such as contacts, photos, emails, and apps.

• Render the smartphone inoperable to an unauthorized user by locking the smartphone with a password or PIN. 911 calls and a "home number" can be accessed for emergencies and to notify the user that the phone is missing.

• Prevent reactivation without the authorized user's permission, including unauthorized factory reset attempts.

• Reverse the inoperability if the smartphone is recovered by the authorized user and restore the user data as much as possible.

Why implement such a feature? Aren't some of these security measures already available?

Yes, but there isn't a lot a user can do once the phone is stolen if the security measures aren't implemented beforehand. While calling the wireless provider after a theft can get your phone blacklisted and not operable on any U.S. network, data on the phone is still at risk unless you prepared beforehand.

More than 60 percent of users do not use a PIN or password lock on their phones, and 71 percent do not back up their data. More than 90 percent of users do not have software that can remotely wipe their phones.

Who participated in the commitment?

Apple Inc.; Asurion; AT&T; Google Inc.; HTC America, Inc.; Huawei Device USA; Motorola Mobility LLC; Microsoft Corporation; Nokia, Inc.; Samsung Telecommunications America, L.P.; Sprint Corporation; T-Mobile USA; U.S. Cellular; and Verizon Wireless.

When will smartphones incorporate this kill switch?

The above companies agreed that all new models manufactured after July 2015 will offer the feature.

Will the kill switch cost anything?

According to the commitment, the feature will be available at no cost to the consumer.

Will someone else be able to remotely wipe my phone?

While this is always a possibility, especially if someone has access to your information, this shouldn't be a major issue. Every phone has an IMEI number assigned to it that cannot be changed or altered. That number is attached to your name and contract when you purchase the phone, and all SIM Cards that have used that IMEI number in the past can be brought up by the network.

While the process of wiping a phone isn't clear yet, as long as you are able to properly identify yourself to your network you should have no issues. It is always a good idea to back up your data on a consistent basis so that no data is lost.

Is the kill switch required?

At this time, no. The kill switch is being offered as a feature and consumers can elect not to use it.

Some states - including California and Minnesota - have pushed for legislation requiring phone manufacturers to include kill switches on their phones, and a federal bill sponsored by Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) has also been proposed. All legislation has either failed or has been postponed due to this newly drafted commitment.