U.S. wireless operators on Wednesday fought back against an accusation from the New York State attorney general that they refused to install software that would act as a "kill switch" to discourage theft of smartphones.
New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman sent letters to top executives of AT&T Inc, Verizon Wireless, Sprint Corp, T-Mobile US Inc and U.S. Cellular Corp, asking why they prevented Samsung Electronics Co from putting kill switch technology in their smartphones.
The technology would give consumers the ability to remotely render their phone inoperable if it is stolen with an aim to eliminating incentives for theft. New York is part of a coalition of cities that are trying to reduce phone theft.
However, Verizon Wireless said it had not yet been offered the kill switch technology by any manufacturer, including Samsung, and No. 3 U.S. mobile provider Sprint denied rejecting a kill switch from Samsung.
Sprint spokeswoman Crystal Davis said her company is working with handset companies on such features but noted that there are "numerous concerns and technical details that need to be reviewed before such a feature is programmed on devices."
Verizon said it would support a free and secure kill switch applications when it is provided by manufacturers.
"We will be responding to the attorney general to help him and the coalition better understand the facts," company spokeswoman Debra Lewis said.
CTIA, the trade group representing U.S. carriers, did not directly address whether its members had accepted the Samsung technology. But it said that any assertion its members have not worked as quickly as possible with national and local regulators "to remove the aftermarket for stolen phones is false."
It also said it encourages consumers to use "available apps and features that remotely wipe, track and lock their devices in case they are lost or stolen," and that its members are exploring and offering technologies to address these crimes while making sure they are not inadvertently creating a "trap door" that hackers and cybercriminals could exploit.
AT&T and T-Mobile US declined to comment on the letter and instead referred questions to CTIA. Smaller rival U.S. Cellular said it was still reviewing the letter.
In the letters dated Tuesday and disclosed publicly on Wednesday, Schneiderman cited media reports that indicated Samsung had offered to pre-load the feature on approved devices at the carriers.
He also referred to a "parallel refusal" by the companies to take the Samsung software and said this raised questions about the independence of their decisions. He asked them whether it was related to their business ties to CTIA and Asurion, a provider of insurance for lost and stolen cellphones.
Schneiderman said smartphone robberies are "rampant nationwide" and that nearly half of all reported robberies in New York City involve a smartphone.
In June, Schneiderman and San Francisco District Attorney George Gascón met with representatives of Apple Inc, Samsung, and Microsoft Corp as well as Google Inc's smartphone maker Motorola Mobility to urge them to install switches to disable stolen smartphones.
The New York Times website was first to report Schneiderman's investigation of the carriers early on Wednesday.
(Reporting by Chris Peters and Rohit T.K. in Bangalore and Sinead Carew in New York; Editing by Supriya Kurane and Lisa Shumaker)