Mobile // Mobile Devices
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8/12/2014
10:16 AM
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California Nears Smartphone Kill Switch

Law would force phone makers to add remote kill switches; Apple, Google, and Microsoft have already agreed to implement them.

5 Inexpensive Smartphones: No Perfect Choice
5 Inexpensive Smartphones: No Perfect Choice
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California is on the brink of becoming the first state to require kill switches in smartphones. The state's senate passed a bill this week mandating the security change, and it is now up to Governor Jerry Brown to sign it and make it law. The state's efforts are laudable, but may be moot at this point.

The law has been years in the making. Lawmakers in California and New York are looking to curb the theft of smartphones, which has spiked in recent years. Smartphones are easy pickings when left unattended on tables in coffee shops, restaurants, and bars, and they are often snatched out of owners' hands by brazen thieves on the street and in subways. According to the NYPD, 8,000 Apple products -- mostly iPhones -- were stolen in New York City during 2013. Some of the robberies led to injuries and even deaths.

The idea behind the kill switch is simple: Make stolen phones unusable. Unusable phones won't score thieves any cash. There's less incentive to steal smartphones if they'll be rendered useless and can't be sold. The kill switch is something device owners can trigger remotely from their desktop or other mobile device, such as a tablet.

The Apple iPhone already has this feature, Find My iPhone, which is part of iOS 7. Earlier this year, law enforcement agencies reported a drop in iPhone thefts after the remote kill switch was added.

In June, both Google and Microsoft announced plans to add theft deterrent tools to Android and Windows Phone, respectively. Google didn't spell out exactly how it intends to implement the kill switch. Microsoft committed to adding a kill switch to all devices running Windows Phone 8 and up. The Windows Phone kill switch will allow owners to: render the smartphone inoperable; remotely wipe personal data from the phone; prevent reactivation without the owner's permission; reverse the inoperability if the phone is recovered; and restore user data if the phone was erased.

[Lots of people will be buying new cell phones soon and will need to protect them from theft. Read Apple iPhone 6 Expected Sept. 9.]

The CTIA Wireless Association, which lobbies for the wireless industry in Washington, voluntarily set up a timeline for theft deterrent tools. All smartphones sold in July 2015 and after will include the tools, whether or not states such as California pass laws requiring them. Microsoft said its theft deterrent will be up and running by then. There's no word from Google on how or when Android will get its version of the remote kill switch, but it has nearly a year to get it up and working properly.

Until the remote kill switch is widely available, smartphone owners can take a number of steps to prevent their devices from walking away unexpectedly. For example, leave the phone in your pocket when walking around, use a passcode, set up the Find My Phone tool, and keep regular backups. If your device is stolen, be sure to report it.

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Eric is a freelance writer for InformationWeek specializing in mobile technologies. View Full Bio

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Lorna Garey
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Lorna Garey,
User Rank: Author
8/12/2014 | 12:17:24 PM
Driver ...
Argualbly it's only the threat of this legislation in two major markets that drove Apple, Google and Microsoft to make this move, so moot or not, it was worth the effort.

Maybe this will be a selling point for Win 8 devices - "The Windows Phone kill switch will allow owners to: render the smartphone inoperable; remotely wipe personal data from the phone; prevent reactivation without the owner's permission; reverse the inoperability if the phone is recovered; and restore user data if the phone was erased."

That's way more than Apple or Samsung are doing, right?
Laurianne
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Laurianne,
User Rank: Author
8/12/2014 | 12:34:56 PM
Remote Wipes
The remote wipe option is smart addition. I have used Find my iPhone to recover mine after I left it in a restaurant. Such a service just makes sense. I am still floored by the number of people who don't even password protect their phones. Is the CA effort a moot point? Weigh in please.
melgross
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melgross,
User Rank: Ninja
8/12/2014 | 1:06:10 PM
Re: Driver ...
In another report, the CTIA has been opposing this legislation.
melgross
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melgross,
User Rank: Ninja
8/12/2014 | 1:07:17 PM
Re: Driver ...
Lorna, that's exactly what Find My Phone has been doing for a year, and how iOS has worked for well over that.
GonzSTL
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GonzSTL,
User Rank: Strategist
8/12/2014 | 3:01:21 PM
Re: Remote Wipes
I don't believe it to be a moot point; late or not, it is still a worthwhile effort. Aside from its benefit to a personal user, imagine a corporate scenario that requires through policy the need for a kill and/or remote wipe capability in mobile devices. It would be so much easier to enforce if the given device already has that feature built in.
Thomas Claburn
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Thomas Claburn,
User Rank: Author
8/12/2014 | 4:32:11 PM
Re: Remote Wipes
I think it's a worthwhile effort, so long as it doesn't hinder things like legitimate phone resale and legitimate transfer of ownership. I'd unclear to me however whether remote data wiping will really get rid of data or just overwrite it so that it can be recovered. I can't imagine law enforcement agencies wanting to allow people to really be able to remotely erase their phones such that the data is truly unrecoverable.
Jeffrub1
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Jeffrub1,
User Rank: Apprentice
8/12/2014 | 5:50:51 PM
Re: Remote Wipes
Even if unnecessary, the added exposure of these laws will hopefully raise awareness and eventual usage of the capability. As noted earlier, security is not top of mind for many consumers, so keeping the topic in the news can only help. As for corporate interest, this will unfortunately provide little benefit in the world of BYOD, where wiping this way won't be enforceable. This would be especially true when a device is lost (not stolen), and the user is therefore reluctant to take security action to protect sensitive company information.
Pablo Valerio
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Pablo Valerio,
User Rank: Moderator
8/13/2014 | 4:54:48 AM
Shame on manufacturers
The way manufacturers and opertors are going about this is really shameful.

They had the technology to implement the kill switch for many years. The only reason is not there yet is basically greed.

The number of stolen smartphones almost doubled last year (3.1m vs 1.6m in 2012), and cost about $2.5 billion to consumers to replace their phones and pay for addtional insurance.

$2.5 billion is a huge business. If the kill switch is implemented and activated by default that additional revenue will go away really fast.

About remote wipes, I believe expert forensic technicians for law enforcement could be able to recover data if necessary. I've only seen a couple of hardware encryption systems that allow for a "real" destruction of all data.
2bafriend
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2bafriend,
User Rank: Apprentice
8/13/2014 | 9:39:04 AM
Good Intentions
Like most government actions, good intentions turn into lage failures.  If you can kill your phone, so can they.  If they don't want you to communicate outside what they want you to say, then you won't.  The government has no business in this.  It is your individual responsibility to protect yourself, your family and your property.  If you cannot take personal responsibility, then maybe you should rethink life.

 
GonzSTL
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GonzSTL,
User Rank: Strategist
8/13/2014 | 11:06:51 AM
Re: Remote Wipes
@Thomas I agree that any such capability must not interfere with legitimate resale or transfer of ownership. Regarding remote wiping, my take is that a government has no right to prevent people from remotely erasing their own personal data on a device they own so that it is unrecoverable. That is personal data, and people have absolute rights to it unless there is a suspicion of criminal activity. The same goes for corporate data on corporate owned devices, subject to records retention regulations. We cannot live in a world where any government agency can impose such restrictions on personal or corporate data without due cause. Arguably, the "due cause" can be abused, but that is beside the point.
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