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2/15/2014
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Smartphone Kill Switch Could Become Federal Law

Smartphone Theft Protection Act would require mobile phone makers to include a way to disable communications devices remotely to deter theft.

Android Security: 8 Signs Hackers Own Your Smartphone
Android Security: 8 Signs Hackers Own Your Smartphone
(click image for larger view)

A week after California State Senator Mark Leno (D-CA) proposed a bill requiring a kill switch for smartphones sold in the state, federal lawmakers have put forward a similar bill.

On Thursday, US Senators Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), Barbara Mikulski (D-MD), Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), and Mazie Hirono (D-HI) introduced national legislation to require a way to disable smartphones remotely. The goal is to deter theft and protect consumers, but this defense against thieves might come with greater vulnerability to hackers, according to a mobile industry trade group.

Certainly, mobile phone theft is a serious problem. Mobile phone thefts account for 30% to 40% of all robberies in major cities nationwide, according to the FCC, and that figure is said to be as high as 50% in markets like San Francisco. According to Consumer Reports, 1.6 million Americans were victimized by smartphone thieves in 2012.

"Cell phone theft has become a big business for thieves looking to cash in on these devices and any valuable information they contain, costing consumers more than $30 billion every year and endangering countless theft victims," Senator Klobuchar said in a statement. "This legislation will help eliminate the incentives for criminals to target smartphones by empowering victims to take steps to keep their information private, protect their identity and finances, and render the phone inoperable to the thieves."

[Smartphones will only become more ubiquitous. Read 1 Billion Smartphones Shipped In 2013.]

The text of the Smartphone Theft Protection Act is not yet available online and a call to Senator Klobuchar's office was not immediately returned.

Law enforcement officials, notably San Francisco district attorney George Gascón and New York State attorney general Eric Schneiderman, have been pushing phone makers to adopt kill switches since last year. But mobile carriers have resisted, according to Gascón, because they make billions annually from selling theft insurance to their subscribers.

Image: Bill Selak (Flickr)
Image: Bill Selak (Flickr)

The mobile industry says a kill switch requirement could increase the chance of being hacked. The CTIA, a telecom industry group, points out that a kill switch would necessarily be triggered by the remote transmission of a kill message and the technical details involved would be widely known among mobile operators. Inevitably, the group argues, hackers would learn how to send these messages maliciously, thereby shutting down phones permanently -- a kill switch is no good if it's reversible because thieves would presumably be able to use the same recovery tools as theft victims.

"[A kill switch] could be used to disable entire groups of customers, such as Department of Defense, Homeland Security or emergency services/law enforcement," says the CTIA, which has been promoting software tracking and data erasure options for smartphones alongside theft prevention measures and phone insurance.

The urge to create electronic tethers to protect property has moved beyond mobile phones in Europe, where authorities reportedly have been developing a kill switch for cars as a defense against dangerous car chases.

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Thomas Claburn has been writing about business and technology since 1996, for publications such as New Architect, PC Computing, InformationWeek, Salon, Wired, and Ziff Davis Smart Business. Before that, he worked in film and television, having earned a not particularly useful ... View Full Bio

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Adam_
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Adam_,
User Rank: Apprentice
2/15/2014 | 2:14:13 PM
Re: Well I for one
There is software (apps) that you can install to erase your data in the manner you describe. Most devices are not being stolen for data, but for their parts.  For example, the thief will dismantle your phone and sell the display, battery, etc. to repair shops.  When someone comes into the repair shop with a broken display, they swap displays and make a profit.  A kill switch will do nothing to prevent these type of chop-shop operations.
jries921
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jries921,
User Rank: Ninja
2/15/2014 | 2:02:45 PM
Still a bad idea
Computing devices, mobile or otherwise, should be under the control of their owners; not the manufacturers, not the mobile carriers or ISPs, not the OS vendors, and certainly not the police.  And as I noted the last time this subject came up, this is a needless barrier to entry at a time when we're suffereing from a lack of competition.  Laws like this one will only make the problem worse.

The consumer would be better served by giving him the ability to disable his own phone, if he wants to pay for the capability (and if it's popular, it will become commonplace).  Middlemen should have nothing to do with it, except as the agents of the customers.

 
dgettier
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dgettier,
User Rank: Apprentice
2/15/2014 | 1:47:26 PM
Well I for one
Well I for one am very irritated that there is not a kill switch on phones already, that could provide at least some level of protection of my personal data and of the phone itself, and hopefully make stealing phones at least unprofitable/less profitable. The reason we don't have this inexpensive feature now? Is because mobile carriers like it when phones get stolen.   
simbaji
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simbaji,
User Rank: Apprentice
2/15/2014 | 1:24:07 PM
U.S. Government Seeks To Be Democratic Regime
Over the years, the U.S. has criticized countries around the world for behaviors that repressed "democracy" or personal freedoms of those countries citizens. Slowly and methodically, however, the United States has worked on instituting nearly every policy and behavior that it publically denounced. Perhaps it is because those countries don't have elected officials like the U.S. does, perhaps it's because they weren't friendly to U.S. interests. Whatever the case, the American people are watching thier once great country become the next regime of the world right before their eyes. Americans would do well to see through the misdriections of their own government before the kill-switch on democracy itself is finally flipped on.
WonderMike
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WonderMike,
User Rank: Apprentice
2/15/2014 | 12:06:02 PM
im not getting my stolen phone back either way
and a kill switch wont stop the theif from removing the sd card and downloading it to pc. this isnt to protect consumers, this is to silence dissidence.
Adam_
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Adam_,
User Rank: Apprentice
2/15/2014 | 11:14:33 AM
The federal government would love for this to become law.
Why?  Because it would be super easy for them to disable EVERYONES communication at the flip of a switch.

Scenario 1:  0bama crowns himself king of the USA.  Revolts are brewing... government flips switch on civilian phones...voila.


Scenario 2: If the government can kill switch your phone, so can hackers.


The best part of all is the kill switch would do absolutely NOTHING to stop or deter theft.  Why? Because most phones are stolen for parts (e.g. the screen is removed from the stolen phone and sold to a repair shop so they can fix a customer's cracked display at a cheap price)

 

Once again, the governments "solution" doesn't solve any problem and threatens the liberties of all Americans.
Tom Mariner
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Tom Mariner,
User Rank: Strategist
2/15/2014 | 11:12:40 AM
Re: The end of America as we know it
Of course the power grab by a sitting President is not isolated to our Present President. Let me make it crystal clear, just so we don't ignore this vital issue because some partisan accuses someone else of being the same: Any President -- Male, Female, Republican, Democrat, past, present, future cannot be allowed to do this.

Just to answer the accusation that I am a Republican jerk attacking Our President because he is not ... My candidate for President in 2016 is a liberal Democrat -- because he is doing a great job for our state and knows when to put his ego on the shelf and work with a legislature!

But do not ignore the very real threat that an Administration can and will shut off individual phones! Do you really want to have to whispering about a government in power in back alleys?

And if you think I am upset with a federal government and a President for siezing power during an administration that lives and breathes political campaigning 24 by 7, wait until the fury that we unleash on a Republican Administration that is supposed to at least mouth the word "Constitution".
CraigS731
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50%
CraigS731,
User Rank: Apprentice
2/15/2014 | 10:54:30 AM
Re: The end of America as we know it
Of course our government can't be trusted, but that didn't begin in 2012.   Tom Mariner gives Obama too much credit... he's a figurehead.  His comments sound like the usual off-topic, partisan B.S., despite his claim to the contrary. 
The cel-phone kill-switch is a bad idea.... but not for the reasons Mr. Mariner gave.
hertfordkc
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hertfordkc,
User Rank: Apprentice
2/15/2014 | 10:42:31 AM
Smart Phone kill switch...by government mandate???
There are apps that can accomplish this.  You don't need a government mandate to do it.  If you aren't smart enough to figure it out, you probably don't need a smart phone.  
Tom Mariner
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Tom Mariner,
User Rank: Strategist
2/15/2014 | 10:38:50 AM
The end of America as we know it
We are blindly ignoring a single individual stealing our most intimate decisions from us. The Administration that takes its every order from the President has just siezed your smartphone -- If you don't think they will turn it off if they find you criticizing the current guys in power, you are ignoring the IRS and the 2012 elections. (Don't turn off if you think this is partisan junk, it ain't)

The President now owns a sixth of our economy and your health through the ACA (Obamacare). He is in the process of having his FCC seize the means of getting you information over the Internet through items like green lighting the Comcast merger and killing Net Neutrality. The favorable treatment of airline mergers means there will soon be a single carrier telling you where you can go. The banking laws are being controlled through the means of "telling banks how to treat marijuana money even though it is still federally illegal".

You think you have protection because of the "three branches of government"? The President OWNS the Senate that has not made a move for the past five years without his OK. One more appointment to the Supreme Court and it will be as "rubber stamp" as the 111'th (Pelosi) House was.

This joke that the mandated "kill switch" is for "our own good" because we Americans are too stupid to make up our own mind is transparent to techies, but the vast majority of those that keep the party in power believe the simple slogans and well-covered pseudo press conferences and vote for rock stars!

If we in the information industry do not stand up and yell, who is going to prevent a single person from shutting off our ability to communicate with one another when he or she feels it is in their interest? Quickly!!! This "kill switch" insanity was a stupid idea in the California legislature just last week!
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