Wireless industry unveils 'kill switch' anti-theft plan

The wireless industry is launching a new effort to crack down on cellphone theft.

CTIA-The Wireless Association, a trade group, launched the voluntary campaign on Tuesday with commitments from Apple, Google, Samsung and the four national service carriers, among others. The effort comes as state and local lawmakers consider calls for mandatory "kill switches" on phones.

“This flexibility provides consumers with access to the best features and apps that fit their unique needs while protecting their smartphones and the valuable information they contain” CTIA chief Steve Largent said in a statement. “At the same time, it’s important different technologies are available so that a ‘trap door’ isn’t created that could be exploited by hackers and criminals.”

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Under terms of the new commitment, companies that sign up will make sure that all U.S. phones manufactured after July, 2015, include an anti-theft feature either preloaded or available as a free download to wipe users’ data, lock the phone so it can’t be used without a password, but also reverse the inoperability if it is found or recovered by an authorized user.

The trade group suggested that the new measure could be an alternative to mandating “kill switches” on all new phones, which would render them useless if stolen.

Multiple state legislatures are considering kill switch bills, and support for a national measure has also bubbled up in Congress. 

The phone industry has opposed requiring the feature. A national kill switch provision would make it easier for hackers to disable people’s phones, they have said, or allow people to erase the contents of their lost phone just to find it buried in a couch cushion or in an old pair of pants.

Instead, companies have worked with the Federal Communications Commission to set up a database of stolen phones, and the wireless trade group is getting behind a bill from Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) that would impose new penalties for tampering with mobile device identification numbers to get around that database.

Apple introduced a feature that acts as a kill switch last year, and Samsung’s new Galaxy S5 includes similar functionality. 

-- Updated at 10:27 p.m.