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The function is designed to discourage phone theft by enabling a manufacturer and carrier to lock the smartphone or tablet even if a SIM card is replaced or the firmware is hacked.

South Korea’s Ministry of Science, ICT and Future Planning said last week it is in talks with the two phone makers about introducing the function to new smartphones, likely from early next year, to curb rising phone theft.

Data from the National Policy Agency show the number of reported smartphone thefts rose 457% to 31,075 last year from 5,575 in 2009. The Korea Customs Service also blocked attempts to smuggle 1,887 smartphones out of the country last year, more than 10 times the 2010 tally of 131 phones.

The government said stolen smartphones are mostly being smuggled overseas because they can’t be registered with domestic carriers once they are reported stolen. It said the kill switch is currently the most effective technology to deter phone theft because the function is planted on the operating system or firmware and can’t be deleted.

Users will have to register their devices for the kill switch to work.

“Consumers should remain cautious and take phone safety measures by themselves, noting that it is ultimately their responsibility to protect their phone,” Lee Dong-hyung, chief of the Telecommunications Policy Bureau at the ministry, said in a statement.

In February, South Korean phone maker Pantech introduced the kill switch function, “V-protection,” on its Vega No. 6, becoming the first Korean firm to do so. Its latest Vega LTE-A phone, available in the Korean market since last week, is fitted with yet another strengthened security feature: a fingerprint scanner. A user would need to match the scanned fingerprint to gain access to apps, messages or photos saved in “Secret Mode.”

Pantech spokesman Kim Moon-goo said many of its smartphone users don’t seem to be very aware of the function. “We hope the government will help improve the public awareness of the measure.”

Pressure on handset makers to step up efforts to prevent phone theft and possible leakage of personal information has been growing in the U.S. as well. In June, a group of U.S. prosecutors pushed global phone makers to adopt the kill switch function by 2014.


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