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Lawmakers debate cell phone "kill switch"

Rochester, N.Y. - Police say three out of every four thefts in the City of Rochester last year involved smart phones. The thefts are becoming increasingly more violent.

In one case a group of teenagers surrounded a 53 year old mother and forced her to turn over her phone. In another, three teenagers were arrested for beating and robbing a U of R student.

Last year New York's Attorney general called for phone manufacturers to voluntarily add a "kill switch" to every phone. Now he backs federal legislation making it mandatory. "Today in the United States 1 in 3 robberies and thefts involve a smart phone," he said.

Federal bills in the House and Senate now call for legislation to add protections for consumers. Yet some carriers are resisting.

Samsung stood alone - the first company ready to make a kill switch a standard feature. But carriers including Sprint and Verizon say it would make phones more vulnerable to hackers.

A kill switch not only wipes a phone clean but shuts it down. "We in the industry call it bricking," said Nick Francesco of RIT's Saunders School. "You actually prevent everything from working. You can't even turn it on."

Yet experts at RIT's Department of Computing Security agree any phone will a kill switch could be hacked. And they say even phones that have been bricked have a black market value overseas. "There isn't a 100 percent for sure (solution)," said Tom Oh. "There are sophisticated hackers who can find a solution to get around that."

"For the casual thief-this will stop them," said Francesco. "Nothing stops professional thieves but 99 percent of the theft of cell phones is casual theft."

As of last November, stolen phones could be reported to a registry and remotely disabled by the carrier. Yet that database does not impact the overseas market for stolen phones. A bill has now been introduced in both the House and Senate.

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Washington Times