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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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IrwinBusk
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67%
IrwinBusk,
User Rank: Apprentice
2/8/2014 | 9:22:56 AM
Dumb.
A stupid law, to protect stupid people, from thier stupid mistakes.   "kill switch"  capability is readily available to those who want or need it.
Levon Tostig
100%
0%
Levon Tostig,
User Rank: Strategist
2/8/2014 | 10:20:46 AM
Re: Dumb.
Oh, the potential for government abuse is staggering on this.  

Imagine what this will be like when cell phones are linked to the computers in cars, for more than just making calls (as promised by Apple and several automakers).  The hand of Government will be able to reach in and take over through Sync (or whatever system the car is using), or misdirect your turn-by-turn directions to go where they want you to go.

If you don't think this is possible, you're entirely wrong.  This is possible *now* with a few $$$ of untracable off-the-shelf parts, and a cell version is coming really soon: http://www.engadget.com/2014/02/06/your-car-s-computer-system-can-be-compromised-with-off-the-shelf/

If it isn't the government doing this, why not anyone with a moderate skill set?  Gosh, what little remotely-sent flash of signal down a cold wire could tell a car's computer to report a false engine problem, just to get a regular visit to a dealership?

All good intentions, foolish Californians...

 
Levon Tostig
100%
0%
Levon Tostig,
User Rank: Strategist
2/8/2014 | 10:20:49 AM
Re: Dumb.
Oh, the potential for government abuse is staggering on this.  

Imagine what this will be like when cell phones are linked to the computers in cars, for more than just making calls (as promised by Apple and several automakers).  The hand of Government will be able to reach in and take over through Sync (or whatever system the car is using), or misdirect your turn-by-turn directions to go where they want you to go.

If you don't think this is possible, you're entirely wrong.  This is possible *now* with a few $$$ of untracable off-the-shelf parts, and a cell version is coming really soon: http://www.engadget.com/2014/02/06/your-car-s-computer-system-can-be-compromised-with-off-the-shelf/

If it isn't the government doing this, why not anyone with a moderate skill set?  Gosh, what little remotely-sent flash of signal down a cold wire could tell a car's computer to report a false engine problem, just to get a regular visit to a dealership?

All good intentions, foolish Californians...

 
Donald Sauter
50%
50%
Donald Sauter,
User Rank: Apprentice
2/8/2014 | 12:03:25 PM
a step in the right direction...
Hey, this is a step in the right direction!  Now what we need is a little explosive charge in each cell phone so if you're within 20 feet, say, of somebody squawking on one in public and being rude and annoying you and everybody else around (sorry about the string of redundancies), you press the little transmitter in your pocket and... ker-zappp!  Time to buy a new one!  Tough love!  Be thankful you weren't blown away by some guy mad as heck and not gonna take it anymore! 

 Donald Sauter
CLAFOUNTAIN100
0%
100%
CLAFOUNTAIN100,
User Rank: Strategist
2/8/2014 | 2:09:39 PM
Re: a step in the right direction...
Kill Switch legislation is for people who can't afford a replacement phone.  

When items like this are lost, or "stolen" (usually "Left Behind" is the most accurate words),  it's usually because the owner makes a conscientious decision.  They also don't personally believe the phone or device is has value to purchase insurance.

Point being, often, people (especially women) say their phone was "stolen" so they can be a victim of circumstance, instead of being empowered to make a decision.

As things are more connected by the internet, it seems that personal responsibility is the most important fleeting skill of the younger generation.   Just remember, one of Steve Jobs' finest developers left an iPhone at a bar, probably to pick up chicks.  That phone probably wasn't worth much to that Apple developer that left it behind!

In any situation, whist continuing on the existing path, Apple will most likely become the next Nortel within 5-10 years;  but unlike Nortel, Apple's business model is based on egos, and token trophies. (the younger generation loves this..!)

With Apple's $180B in cash, I think a lot of people are paying Apple too much for a brand name.  Margins like this are absolutely obscene; and it doesn't take much thought to figure out the price is set too high, and consumers are getting unreasonably screwed by Apple's monopoly on these types of patents.
Adam_
100%
0%
Adam_,
User Rank: Apprentice
2/8/2014 | 2:24:49 PM
Bad Idea
What would happen:


Hackers, government, etc. would kill the phones of legitimate users

Thieves would just canabalize your phone anyways -- someones phone display is cracked, they swap out the display with one that they stole.

Once again, the path to he|| is paved with good intentions.
jries921
50%
50%
jries921,
User Rank: Ninja
2/8/2014 | 2:26:39 PM
I'm not at all sure I'm in favor of this
Certainly, we want such phones to be available, but we should avoid unnecessary barriers to entry (the mobile phone market needs more competition, not less).  If the California Legislature wants to dictate standards, a more important one would be that the owner of the phone be accorded ultimate control of the device with the absolute right to use it in any manner he sees fit, as long as it's legal; to use his device on any network that will have him; and to make whatever modifications to it he thinks proper as long as it does't interfere with the ability of others to use their own devices, the ID remains unaltered, and no attempt is made to steal services for which one hasn't paid (but a carrier who depends on control of the devices on his network to maintain security is an idiot).

 
unitedtruth
50%
50%
unitedtruth,
User Rank: Apprentice
2/8/2014 | 2:46:17 PM
Don't fall for this propaganda
I'm in the wireless industry, this is being pushed by the big cell phone providers to help remove the pre paid wireless market. The fact is, stolen phones aren't a problem. And what constitutes as a "stolen" phone who decides? These guys want to sell televisions, and control what channel you tune to unless they receive their ROI in full! And if the customer can't pay, they will brick your phone and still charge you full price for an asset they just bricked. It screams anti trust suit.the Justice department needs to get involved and make the rules fair.
ObadiahC218
50%
50%
ObadiahC218,
User Rank: Apprentice
2/8/2014 | 2:49:14 PM
Kill Switch could be a very good idea
One very good thing that could come out of the addition of a 'kill switch' - 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 (or operating a train, or airliner for that matter). Preventing distracted driving "accidents" would be a fantastic use for this technology.
anon6297107716
50%
50%
anon6297107716,
User Rank: Apprentice
2/8/2014 | 3:06:18 PM
Re: a step in the right direction...
To deter thieves it would be better to have a small built-in explosive charge that could be activated by the victim (text "86thief" to the phone) and set off when the perp tries to use the stolen phone.
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