The kill switch is here: iOS 8 enables it by default

Apple is the first smartphone maker to abide by a new California anti-theft law

With the release of its new mobile operating system, Apple has become the first smartphone maker to enable by default a kill switch that can lock and secure a stolen phone.

Smartphones, both Apple and Android-based, are attractive targets for thieves, and law enforcement officials hope the kill switch will change that.

The software is capable of remotely locking and disabling a phone if it's stolen, only allowing the handset to be unlocked with a correct password. That action essentially makes a phone useless, reducing the resale price to close to zero.

California lawmakers recently passed legislation that makes a kill switch mandatory on all new phones sold in the state starting in July 2015.

Apple's last major operating system update, iOS 7, introduced kill switch software called "Activation Lock." But it wasn't enabled by default, something the California law requires. With that changed in iOS 8, the software becomes the first to conform to all elements of the California regulation.

"Apple products are the most commonly targeted smartphones, so deploying this technology on a default basis will safeguard almost all iPhone users in the years ahead," San Francisco District Attorney George Gascon said in a statement. Gascon has been one of the leading proponents of the kill switch system.

There's some evidence that Activation Lock is already having a deterrent effect since the launch of iOS 7 in September 2013.

Thefts of iPhones and iPads dropped by 19 percent in New York City in the first five months of this year, while in San Francisco, iPhone thefts were 38 percent lower in the six months after the iOS 7 introduction, according to data from law enforcement.

The kill switch can only be enabled by the subscriber. Mobile operators, Apple and law enforcement agencies don't have access to the system, and locked phones can only be unlocked by the subscriber. It's also possible for subscribers to disable the feature entirely.

Both Google and Microsoft will add a similar kill switch feature in upcoming versions of their smartphone operating systems.

Martyn Williams covers mobile telecoms, Silicon Valley and general technology breaking news for The IDG News Service. Follow Martyn on Twitter at @martyn_williams. Martyn's e-mail address is martyn_williams@idg.com

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