Google and Microsoft will add a “kill-switch” feature to their Android and Windows phone operating systems.
The feature is a method of making a handset completely useless if it is stolen, rendering a theft pointless.
Authorities have been urging tech firms to take steps to help curb phone theft and argued that a kill-switch feature can help resolve the problem.
Apple and Samsung, two of the biggest phone makers, offer a similar feature on some of their devices.
The move by Google and Microsoft means that kill switches will now be a part of the three most popular phone operating systems in the world.
An activated kill switch converts an easy-to-sell, high-value multimedia device into a jumble of plastic and glassâ€
New York State Attorney General
Smartphone theft has become a big problem across the world. According to a report by US authorities:
- Some 3.1 million mobile devices were stolen in the US in 2013, nearly double the number of devices stolen in 2012
- One in three Europeans experienced the theft or loss of a mobile device in 2013
- In South Korea mobile device theft increased five-fold between 2009 and 2012
- In Colombia criminals stole over one million devices in 2013
In an attempt to tackle the issue, policymakers have launched an initiative called Secure our Smartphones.
As part of it, they have urged technology firms to take steps to make it less attractive for robbers to steal mobile devices.
“An activated kill switch converts an easy-to-sell, high-value multimedia device into a jumble of plastic and glass, drastically reducing its street value,” the report by New York Attorney General said.
Explainer: How a kill switch works
- A “hard” kill switch would render a stolen device permanently unusable and is favoured by legislators who want to give stolen devices the “value of a paperweight”
- A “soft” kill switch only make a phone unusable to “an unauthorised user”
- Some argue that the only way to permanently disable a phone is to physically damage it
- Experts worry that hackers could find a way to hijack a kill signal and turn off phones
- If a phone is turned off or put into aeroplane mode, it might not receive the kill signal at all, warn experts
Authorities claim that Apple’s feature – dubbed Activation Lock – which it introduced on all iPhones running the iOS 7 operating system in September last year, has helped reduce theft substantially.
According to a report by the New York State Attorney General, in the first five months of 2014 the theft of Apple devices fell by 17% in New York City.
Meanwhile iPhone robberies fell 24% in London and 38% in San Francisco in the six months after Apple introduced the feature, compared to the previous six months.
“During the same period, thefts of other popular mobile devices increased,” the report says.
Manoj Menon, managing director of consulting firm Frost & Sullivan said the move was a step in the right direction.
“This is a fantastic move and will go a long way in helping authorities come one step closer to realising a vision of zero theft of mobile phone,” he told the BBC.
But he added that it was “not a foolproof system” as thieves “will find a way to monetise the accessories and parts of a phone”.
However, he said the market for parts and accessories was relatively small and the kill switch “does substantially reduce the financial incentive of stealing a device”.