Google and Microsoft are to join Apple and Samsung in adding a 'kill-switch' feature to their Android and Windows phone operating systems, allowing owners to render the handset useless if it is stolen.
The move was announced by New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, who co-chairs the international campaign Secure Our Smartphones with Mayor of London Boris Johnson and San Francisco District Attorney George Gascón, which has been pressuring mobile phone companies to adopt such a feature.
According to a report by US authorities, 3.1m devices were stolen in the US in 2013, almost double the number taken in 2012, while one in three Europeans experienced either the loss or theft of a mobile in 2013, leading to a growing demand for a method of deterring thieves from stealing the devices.
Apple introduced its 'Activation Lock' feature last year on all iPhones running iOS 7, and a report by Secure Our Smartphones shows there has been a substantial drop in thefts since this move. In the first five months of 2014, theft of Apple devices fell by 17 per cent in New York, 38 per cent in San Francisco and 24 per cent in London following the feature's rollout.
"The commitments of Google and Microsoft are giant steps toward consumer safety and the statistics released today illustrate the stunning effectiveness of kill switches," said Schneiderman. "In just one year, the Secure Our Smartphones Initiative has made tremendous strides towards curtailing the alarming trend of violent smartphone theft. We will continue the fight to ensure that companies put consumers' safety first and work toward ending the epidemic of smartphone theft."
The introduction of such a feature to all phones seems inevitable, with state legislators in Minnesota having passed a bill stating a 'kill switch' must be included on all phones sold in the state from July 2015 onwards. California is reportedly close to passing a similar law, and the US Congress is considering national legislation along the same lines.
However, experts have warned that phones that have been switched off or put in aeroplane mode may not receive the 'kill signal', and worry that hackers may be able to find a way to hijack the signal, turning off phones still in their owners' possession.