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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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dgettier
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dgettier,
User Rank: Apprentice
2/17/2014 | 8:23:46 AM
Re: Still a bad idea
Not sure I understand your distinction between need and demand. In my Hudson river example, the consumer will be waiting on the banks of the polluted river with their jet ski in tow....   a very long time. However the River will never become clean since factories make a profit by dumping their excess wastes in it for free.  You need the EPA.  So no, I don't think the cell phone industry will ever give the consumer a remote ability to flash EEPROMs, rendering the cell phone useless. Why, because this reduce the actual number of phones stolen. JMHO.
rradina
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rradina,
User Rank: Ninja
2/17/2014 | 8:21:01 AM
The Internet Of Things...
Stolen phones are a problem.  If they cost our government (i.e. occupying law enforcement), then it has a duty to reduces those costs through any and all reasonable means within the boundaries of the constitution (up to and including telling folks they'll do nothing).  

If stolen phones don't cost our government, then the government should excercise restraint and allow the industry to resolve the issue.  Since Congress is involving itself, there must be ample customer desire for change.  The market will decide the best way to take care of the issue.

Regarding the carriers being against the kill switch becaue they sell insurance, that assumes insurance is purchased because a kill switch does not exist.  Plenty of phones are lost/damaged due to events that have nothing to do with theft and a mandatory kill switch will do nothing to address those events.
Brian.Dean
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Brian.Dean,
User Rank: Ninja
2/17/2014 | 8:04:23 AM
Re: Still a bad idea
Good point, a need is not always fulfilled by market forces. Demand on the other hand is always fulfilled by the market. This does not mean that in order to protect a phone everyone has to pay for it however, if they do want security at no direct cost than, indirectly they can spend 3 or 4 hours searching for the right solution, or just ask a tech savvy friend.
Brian.Dean
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Brian.Dean,
User Rank: Ninja
2/17/2014 | 7:48:21 AM
Re: The end of America as we know it
Good point, consumers need to take control of their security as well. If proper encryption is enabled then even if the phone is stolen then at least the data would not fall into the wrong hands. And lock down of hardware can also be utilized by consumers rendering the hardware useless, over time if it is not profitable for someone to steal a phone then the black market would implode on itself.
Brian.Dean
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Brian.Dean,
User Rank: Ninja
2/17/2014 | 7:41:50 AM
Re: The end of America as we know it
In the event that a Smartphone has been stolen, remote tracking could also be enabled by law enforcing agencies. However, this too could be used by criminals to track innocent consumers and victimizing them. There will always be a trade-off when any new measure is enabled. Making a decision is difficult, the losses needs to be mapped up against the benefits and all in a timely fashion, because freezing/inactivity could also cause an increase in losses down the road.
Whoopty
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Whoopty,
User Rank: Ninja
2/17/2014 | 7:39:11 AM
Re: Don't need it don't want it
Totally agree. If anything, this will provide a new feature for malware makers to use for randsomeware - give us $XXX or we'll brick your phone. 
HoldenM410
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HoldenM410,
User Rank: Strategist
2/17/2014 | 7:22:49 AM
Don't need it don't want it
My note 3 is one of the more expensive phones and no way do I want a pre installed kill feature. I'll install one myself if I want it. I would be interested to know how they would plan on implementing it, 5 minutes out of the box and my phones are unlocked and I have root access, usually flashing a new rom. I then remove or quarantine unwanted bloatware. I'm no tech genius and I'm not doing anything that is complicated, most people that graduated sandbox can figure it out. I don't see any benefits to a law mandating kill switches. The idiot kid who wants to steal a phone because he wants one is going to be too stupid to realize their is a kill switch and steal it anyway. The smart thieves want your phone for parts, they don't care about kill switches. The smarter thieves that want your data know exactly how to get around these locks. And to top it off a remote entity good or bad can shut you down. No thanks, if it becomes law I will be exploring ways to disable it on my own phone
HoldenM410
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50%
HoldenM410,
User Rank: Strategist
2/17/2014 | 7:01:35 AM
Re: Well I for one
You don't have to irritated, a quick search on Google play will offer you many apps that will lock and locate your phone. You don't need big brother to hold your hand and make a law for you. The resources are there for you to do it yourself if you want it.
lpop679
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lpop679,
User Rank: Apprentice
2/16/2014 | 11:21:13 PM
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MatthewMStonebr
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MatthewMStonebr,
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2/16/2014 | 3:42:43 PM
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