What’s the Deal with a Proposed US Cellphone Kill Switch?

On Friday California legislators upped the ante in their battle with carriers by introducing legislation requiring smartphones sold in that state to come with a kill switch installed. The idea behind the new proposed legislation is to help deter smartphone theft. The kill switch would render a phone inoperable if it were stolen. The legislation offers no suggestions of how to implement this type of solution or from the advocates of the law. If passed the legislation would take effect in January 2015, requiring all phones sold after that time to have such a kill switch, or for the carriers to face a fine.

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According to figures smartphone theft accounts for 30 to 40 percent of thefts across the US. According to Consumer Reports, 1.6 million Americans had their devices stolen in 2012. Authorities say that often these thefts turn violent, which is another reason prompting the law. An advocate for the cause is Paul Boken. His daughter Megan was killed in a smartphone theft in St. Louis, Missouri. California State Senator Mark Leno calls phone theft “a crime of convenience” and that “we end the convenience, we end the crime. It’s that simple.” The idea being that criminals will be less likely to pursue stealing a smartphone if they know a kill switch exists that won’t allow them to sell it on the black market.

This isn’t the first time we’ve heard about this issue. In the fall of 2013 there was concern registered when US mobile carriers would not let Samsung install kill switch software on new phones. Australia has such a law and has seen smartphone theft decrease and has seen theft drop by 25 percent. The carriers rejected efforts in November and December to find a reasonable solution for the issue, thus prompting advocates to move forward with legislative remedies.

So, what’s the carriers hold up? Money. Carriers have lucrative arrangements with insurance companies who sell policies to cover lost, stolen, or damaged cellphones. Decrease the need for those policies by decreasing the chances of theft and that profit center diminishes its returns. In a very politic statement, another advocate of the Secure our Smartphone initiative, San Francisco District Attorney George Gascón said, “I’m not implying that the industry is solely motivated by profit, but one certainly has to ask why” they resist these efforts. New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman had asked the carriers in December why they were against this kind of security feature and received no satisfactory response. Attorneys General in 29 states are also supportive of the initiative.

According to the carriers and CITA, its trade association, they are concerned about the possibility of hacking and security, which is sure to capture attention in the debate given the current climate surrounding those issues here in the US and elsewhere. A potential fear would be a hacker turning off a user’s smartphone, or potentially turning off blocks of phones depending on how a kill switch was implemented.

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Apple has been commended by law enforcement for its Activation Lock feature, but apparently there is not enough data available to determine how well the feature deters theft.

Other states have often followed California’s lead in legislation like this and the hope of those advocating for kill switch legislation would be that other states would follow a successful legislative push with laws of their own. Of course if California or a few states made this the law, cellphone manufacturers would have to install a kill switch and no one imagines those companies making smartphones for sale on a state by state basis.

 

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