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2/8/2014
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California Kill Switch Bill Targets Phone Thieves

California bill directs mobile hardware makers to include a way to disable stolen communications devices. Will privacy concerns be addressed?

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California State Senator Mark Leno on Friday introduced a bill that, if passed, will require makers of mobile communications devices sold in the state after Jan. 1, 2015 to include technology that can render such devices inoperable when lost or stolen.

The mandated technology, commonly referred to as a "kill switch," may be implemented in software or hardware, but must be able to survive a factory reset. To comply, companies might have to do additional engineering work on their mobile devices -- factory resets typically erase all data by reformatting storage media and might not be set up to handle exceptions. The specified fine for the absence of a kill switch ranges from $500 to $2,500 per violation.

The bill stipulates that the physical action necessary to disable the kill switch may only be taken by the rightful owner of the device or a person designated by the owner; the mobile carrier may not do so, but presumably could with the owner's permission. The mobile carrier also may not encourage the disabling of the kill switch.

The kill switch must "render inoperable" the following features: "the ability to use the device for voice communications and the ability to connect to the Internet, including the ability to access and use mobile software applications commonly known as 'apps.'"

[Protect yourself against phone thieves. Read 10 Defenses Against Smartphone Theft.]

This wording leaves some ambiguity: A PIN-protected lock screen appears to meet the bill's requirements because the bill limits access and use but does not call for the shutdown of software (the termination of processes). Many apps continue to run in the background and access the Internet even when they're not being used by the device owner.

At the same time, the bill's unqualified voice communications cutoff requirement appears to conflict with the Federal Communications Commission's rule that wireless phones must be capable of making 911 calls regardless of whether the caller has a mobile service plan.

Photo courtesy of West Midlands Police (Flickr).

Leno and San Francisco district attorney George Gascón announced their intent to propose a kill switch requirement last December, citing an "alarming rate" of mobile phone thefts nationwide. They cite FCC figures indicating that smartphone thefts account for 30% to 40% of all robberies nationwide. In San Francisco, that figure is said to be more than 50%.

Smartphone theft and the public safety issues that accompany it have galvanized lawmakers and law enforcement officials around the country. Last summer, Gascón joined New York State attorney general Eric Schneiderman to launch Secure Our Smartphones (SOS), a nationwide initiative to encourage phone makers to integrate anti-theft technology. And last month US Senator Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) said she intends to introduce similar federal legislation in the coming weeks.

Mobile carriers have rejected calls for a kill switch. CTIA, a trade group for the wireless industry, says it would be too easy for hackers to forge kill switch commands, thereby shutting down mobile communication services for authorities, emergency responders, or other officials. Gascon, however, reportedly has email evidence that mobile carriers are resisting the call for kill switches to preserve the billions of dollars they make annually from selling theft insurance to their customers.

Leno's bill states that, according to industry publications, "the four largest providers of commercial mobile radio services made an estimated $7.8 billion dollars from theft and loss insurance products in 2013."

Carrier motives aside, a government-mandated anti-theft regime raises provocative questions about the limits of property ownership and privacy. In order to be effective, this kill switch could not be easily disabled by switching a device off or into airplane mode. As a consequence, any person carrying an always-on device becomes always trackable.

In addition, the rationale for putting kill switches in phones also applies to cars, the theft of which, according to the FBI, cost $4.3 billion in losses nationwide in 2011. Though that's far less than the $30 billion in estimated US mobile phone losses during 2012, this particular form of digital restriction management (DRM) seems destined to spread as more devices get connected to the Internet.

Too many companies treat digital and mobile strategies as pet projects. Here are four ideas to shake up your company. Also in the Digital Disruption issue of InformationWeek: Six enduring truths about selecting enterprise software. (Free registration required.)

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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mak63
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mak63,
User Rank: Ninja
2/17/2014 | 3:36:24 PM
Re: Dumb.
@IrwinBusk

A stupid law, to protect stupid people, from thier stupid mistakes."kill switch" capability is readily available to those who want or need it.

A little harsh, aren't you? Moreover, your statement is too broad to be of much value.
I'm curious about the kill switch that is already available. Could you expand on that?

 

 
jries921
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jries921,
User Rank: Ninja
2/10/2014 | 8:28:20 PM
The contingency is an error
If requiring GMO products to be labeled as such is good policy (and I would certainly be in favor of it as long it's not too hard to determine whether it is or isn't), then state legislatures should do it, regardless of whether other states follow (if it works well, other states probably will follow).  Thus, contingency clauses constitute "putting the cart before the horse", in a very real sense.

 
jries921
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jries921,
User Rank: Ninja
2/10/2014 | 8:22:47 PM
Re: Law needs to be thought through
But customers should be able to decide for themselves whether or not they want the capability and how much they're willing to pay for it.  The bigger priority is a more competitive market and we can only get there by *lowering* barriers to entry instead of raising them.

 
Kristin Burnham
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Kristin Burnham,
User Rank: Author
2/10/2014 | 8:12:33 PM
Re: Law needs to be thought through
You make a good point: As attached as people are to their phones these days, you'd likely recognize your device is gone before a culprit (if it was stolen) had an opportunity to strip it for parts. Tracking software is a worthwhile investment, and technology that's available today, too.
jries921
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jries921,
User Rank: Ninja
2/10/2014 | 7:24:37 PM
Re: I'm not at all sure I'm in favor of this
The Invisible hand does work, though sometimes slowly, and it's much more general than "pro-business" types are usually willing to admit.  But I think the important thing to remember is that *every* participant in the market is part of it, giving us all some responsibility for how well it works (people might want to consider how their buying and selling habits affect the market as a whole instead of assuming that the right things will happen automatically).

 
Ariella
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Ariella,
User Rank: Ninja
2/10/2014 | 7:04:26 PM
Re: I'm not at all sure I'm in favor of this
@jries921, yes, it's not altogether simple. What you said made me think of the GMO food labeling controversy. Last year a state law calling for it failed to pass in California, as it did earlier in Washington state. However, it did pass in Connecticut at the end of last year, as it did in Maine in January. For both theose states, the measure is contingent on it passing in additional states in the NE.  However, even while it fails to pass (for whatever pressures are at work) a number of major food companies, particularly cereal makers like General Mills, Post, and Kellogs, are publicizing their own GMO-free products, bowing to public pressure even without legal mandates.
jries921
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jries921,
User Rank: Ninja
2/10/2014 | 6:49:47 PM
Re: I'm not at all sure I'm in favor of this
I think we tend to think of the Invisible Hand a bit too narrowly.  In a truly free market, it will rarely be necessary for governments to intervene, but many markets are oligopolistic (ie. not really free), making collusion and manipulation a lot easier than they are in the highly competitive markets Adam Smith properly preferred (that and it's rarely the case that consumers and workers have all of the data they need to make informed decisions, but Smith's model assumes perfect infornation).

But if lots of people are unhappy with how the market is functioning, it creates pressure for governments to intervene (especially in a democracy) and I think that too is part of the Invisible Hand.  Hence, I think politicians and regulators  should work to make markets as free and competitive as they reasonably can be (it would end up reducing the work they have to do), undertanding that judicious intervention may sometimes be necessary to bring that about and that large employers and vendors have a built in advantage over workers and consumers in that there are a lot more of the latter than the former and the former are a lot richer (general relativity has definite applications to both economics and political science).

 
Charlie Babcock
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Charlie Babcock,
User Rank: Author
2/10/2014 | 5:40:22 PM
Target is phone thieves but lots of collateral damage
It'a a pain to log in to your phone each time you want to use it. But it accomplishes much of the purpose of a kill switch, without the switch. I'll stick with my log-in password and skip lobbyingfor a kill switch.
Kristin Burnham
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Kristin Burnham,
User Rank: Author
2/10/2014 | 3:46:04 PM
Re: Kill Switch could be a very good idea
But what about the instances in which you're involved in an accident? While I understand your arguement for it doing some good, I'm still not sure this would be a good move. Be wary of your surroundings and resist operating your phone while driving. As a reader above mentioned, a "kill switch" is protecting people from their mistakes.
Petar Zivovic
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Petar Zivovic,
User Rank: Strategist
2/10/2014 | 1:32:20 PM
Law needs to be thought through
Lots of good commentary here.

I have several thoughts on this.

First, in reply to the user who stated below, "...phones could be set to automatically cease operation in the proximity of a car's driver seat, making it impossible to text or call while driving..." Ok, despite best intentions, an accident occurs anyway for an unrelated reason. I go to call 911 and/or family for help...oh wait, I CAN'T. My phone's disabled. For this reason, in my opinion, this is a well-intentioned idea that isn't a good one when set to an absolute like that.

Second, in reply to the article, where the third paragraph starts: "The bill stipulates that the physical action necessary to disable the kill switch may only be taken by the rightful owner of the device or a person designated by the owner..." The problem with this also well-intentioned approach is, if the technology exists in the phone so the owner can disable it, chances are the thieves will figure out how to work that function to disable it. This puts us right back where we started. That alone makes this law likely an exercise in futility, in addition to the points made later in the article.

Finally, I'm with Mr. Preston on this. Businesses can make an offering and people will pay if they really want it. In general, consumers want more choice, not more mandatory features shoved down their throat (and the associated costs).

I do pay for tracking software to find my phone in case it's lost/stolen. A PIN is required to unlock it. Encryption software protects my sensitive data. If a thief is savvy enough to wipe my phone and/or strip it for spare parts before I can remote find/kill it, so be it. But if all I did is misplace my phone, I can at least find it again. Case in point: I wish this feature was available on my wife's older phone last week. She dropped it in the snow just outside the garage but didn't realize it was missing until she had gone to half a dozen places. This feature would have eliminated all places to search except home, narrowing the search tremendously, and we probably would have found it within the hour instead of half a day later.

Based on the above, the proposed law is not only unnecessary, it creates a burden that will help few (if any) and harm many. Therefore it would not make a good law & should not be passed.
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