The "kill switch," a system for remotely disabling smartphones and wiping their data, will become standard in 2015, according to a pledge backed by most of the mobile world's major players.
The hope is to deter crime, including slayings, over smartphones. In Overland Park, more than 300 were stolen last year. In Kansas City, nearly 2,000 phones were reported stolen last year. The estimated value was almost $900,000.
And just last week, a woman was attacked inside Grant Hall on the University of Missouri at Kansas City campus by thieves who sought her phone. The thieves knocked the victim to the ground but finally ran off as the woman repeatedly screamed for help.
Apple, Google, Samsung and Microsoft, along with the five biggest cellular carriers in the United States, are among those that have signed on to a voluntary program announced Tuesday by the industry's largest trade group.
All smartphones manufactured for sale in the United States after July 2015 must have the technology, according to the program from CTIA-The Wireless Association.
Advocates say the feature would deter thieves from taking mobile devices by rendering phones useless while allowing people to protect personal information if their phone is lost or stolen. Its proponents include law enforcement officials concerned about the rising problem of smartphone theft.
"We appreciate the commitment made by these companies to protect wireless users in the event their smartphones are lost or stolen," said Steve Largent, president and CEO of CTIA. "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."
HTC, Motorola, Nokia are among the other smartphone makers who have signed up, along with carriers AT&T, Verizon, T-Mobile, Sprint and U.S. Cellular.
The feature would let a phone's owner erase contacts, photos, email and other information, and lock the phone so it can't be used without a password.
The feature, which will be offered at no cost to consumers, also will prevent the phone from being reactivated without an authorized user's consent. The data would be retrievable if the owner recovers the phone.
Some phone makers already include the ability to remotely wipe phones. In Apple's latest mobile operating system, iOS 7, a feature called Activation Lock lets users prevent their phones from being reactivated even if they're reset.
The new pledge marks a reversal for wireless carriers, who have resisted making the kill-switch feature mandatory. Industry representatives have said they fear hackers exploiting remote-kill technology, while critics accuse the industry of not wanting to lose revenue from replacing and activating stolen phones.
Carriers have faced mounting pressure from lawmakers, some of whom are working on laws at the state level that would require remote shutdown capability.
In Minnesota, a mandatory kill-switch bill was recently passed by the Legislature and signed by the state's governor. This made Minnesota the first state to pass such legislation.
Courtney Thomas' sister-in-law was the woman attacked at UMKC by two men seeking her phone. Those men have not been caught.
"At a big university, it happened inside the school where people are and can see her, and it still happened," she said. "It's scary. She was really scared. Physically she didn't get hurt, but emotionally it really shook her up."
Thomas and others in the victim's family want to know what it will take to get kill-switch legislation enacted.
"It doesn't make sense. Such an easy thing could prevent a lot of (bad) things from happening," Thomas said.
Asking three people in Kansas City the same question about their smartphones and each one of them had the same expensive tale of how quickly it was stolen.
"I just put my phone down and went to hang out with group of friends and it wasn't there," said Katrina Kushnir.
"I just lost it out of nowhere. Left it sitting somewhere and no phone," said Mimi Dean.
"You retrace your steps, but when you have an expensive phone people will snatch it up in quickly," said Kirsten Emert.
Emert was at a concert when she lost her cellphone and had to pay a pretty penny to have it replaced.
"About $600 and then I had to pay a $100 deductible for insurance. Still a pain in the butt and knowing you spent that much money on the phone and you have to spend another $100 for a new one," she said.
Oregon state Sen. Bruce Starr, president of the National Conference of State Legislatures, said his group "applauds the announcement unveiling the wireless industry's commitment to reduce the number of smartphone thefts each year by providing anti-theft tools on future devices."
"This voluntary effort serves as another positive illustration of the wireless industry adapting to address consumer needs through self-regulation," he said.
But an optional deal didn't go far enough for others.
"The wireless industry today has taken an incremental yet inadequate step to address the epidemic of smartphone theft," said California state Sen. Mark Leno, who represents parts of San Francisco, in a statement. "Only weeks ago, they claimed that the approach they are taking today was infeasible and counterproductive."
Leno fears that because consumers would need to activate the feature, many phones would remain unprotected.
"While I am encouraged they are moving off of that position so quickly, today's 'opt-in' proposal misses the mark if the ultimate goal is to combat street crime and violent thefts involving smartphones and tablets."
Paul Boken and his wife are fighting hard to get the kill switches installed after their daughter was murdered in August 2010 in St. Louis. Megan Boken was talking on the phone with her mother when she was killed.
"We're doing this to honor her because we know she would want us to," Paul Boken said. "I am frustrated. It should be moving faster. I think it's sad we have to introduce legislation, but I think it's important."
Sprint Headquarters is located in Overland Park, KS, and the company said in a written statement, "Sprint has entered into a voluntary industry-wide commitment to implement comprehensive anti-theft tools and measures on smartphone devices nationwide starting July 2015 and we're working toward meeting that goal."
KCTV5's Laura McCallister contributed to this report.
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