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Under pressure to act, cell phone makers to add 'kill switch' to new devices

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Apple, AT&T and 11 other smartphone makers and wireless companies have agreed to add "kill switch" technology to their devices starting next year in an effort to deter cell phone theft, Bloomberg News reports.

The companies have agreed to provide a free preloaded or downloadable anti-theft tool on smartphones sold in the U.S. after July 2015, according to a statement released Tuesday by CTIA-The Wireless Association, a cell phone industry trade group.

Owners will be able to remotely wipe a smartphone's data and prevent someone from reactivating a phone if it's stolen or lost, the association said. Those actions could be reversed if the phone is recovered by the owner.

Almost one in three robberies in the U.S. involves phone theft, according to the Federal Communications Commission. Lost and stolen mobile devices — mostly smartphones — cost consumers more than $30 billion in 2012, the agency said in a study, according to the Associated Press.

The cell phone providers have been under increasing pressure from politicians on the federal and state levels, as well as law enforcement agencies, to add more anti-theft features to smart phones and other devices because of the huge increase in thefts.

U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., has introduced legislation in the Senate to require kill switches on cell phones, and a similar bill is pending in the House. Her bill is supported by San Francisco District Attorney George Gascon and New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, who have been vocal advocates for kill switch technology.

Gascon and Schneiderman said in a joint statement Tuesday that while CTIA's plan is "a welcomed step," it still falls short because the measures rely on consumers to seek out and turn on the technology. They want the features enabled by default, rather than relying on consumers to "opt in."

Industry officials have said in the past that putting a permanent kill switch on phones has serious risks, including the potential for hackers to remotely wipe a device by swiping the credentials of a phone’s owner, the AP reports.

The announcement comes just a few weeks after Samsung announced that it added two anti-theft features to its latest model, the Galaxy S5 smartphone. Apple also has anti-theft tools available for its iPhones.

Signers of the industry "Smartphone Anti-Theft Voluntary Commitment" are 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.

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