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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
2/15/2014 | 7:02:53 PM
Re: Still a bad idea
@jries921: Great comments. A couple of responses to consider:

1. "...mere existence of wants and needs is not enough to guarantee that they'll be filled efficiently, though the existence of a free market makes it much more likely than otherwise.".


At times good things never occur because of things like Externalities for example (when a 3rd person is effected, but not compensated), which incentatives bad behavior. A classic example is when the Hudson River in the early 70's caught fire. Factories were dumping toxic chemicals into the river because there were no costs associated with this. They were litteraly incentized to maximize dumping deadly chemicals into the river, until ground rules were established by the EPA that is. The kill switch might be an example of something that would never occur on its own, because it reduces profits. There are many other ways that our free market system doesn't work like Adam Smith (and everyone) would like it to (Transparency, Disparity, Public Goods, BoomBust, etc. etc).

2. "So if government is going to intervene, it should not be by raising barriers to entry, which a kill switch mandate would definitely do."

I don't see the kill switch as much of barrier. I may be wrong here, but my understanding based on what I've read is that it is actually pretty minor to implement.

Another thing to consider is that competition increases when good ground rules are established. Compare the cell phone industries in Europe to those here. Early on Europe's governments got together and created a set of basic rules (e.g. homogenious infrastructures, exchangable SIM Cards, Texting across carriers, abiltiy to exchange phones, works in the US. etc.). With this confusion out of the way, they quickly surpassed the US, who weren't even texting at the time (~2004?). We still have 6 or 7 different incompatable infrastrures, which reduce coverage for all, and requires constant phone exchanges.  This all means more expense, with less service.  The study I read was a while ago, and I don't know who the two compare today (truth in lending).

I would only be in favor of a kill switch if a) it works, and b) if I held the encrytped password which could authorize this feature. The interesting question to me is what should we do if a) and b) are true.  Would folks still be against it.  
jries921
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jries921,
User Rank: Ninja
2/15/2014 | 6:16:50 PM
Re: Still a bad idea
I agree that the mere existence of wants and needs is not enough to guaranteed that they'll be filled efficiently, though the existence of a free market makes it much more likely than otherwise.  And while my previous post may not have sounded like it, I do actually believe in activist government, though I also think that it behooves politicians and bureaucrats to be careful when intervening, as the Law of Unintended Consequences is always with us.

One of the big problems I see with the cellular telephone market is that the distribution channel is almost completely controlled by the carriers, and for the most part, that means the whole industry is dominated by an oligopoly (there are still some regional carriers, but they're relatively unimportant).  And while carriers typically carry a variety of devices from various manufacturers, the market is not, in my opinion, nearly competitive enough.  So if government is going to intervene, it should not be by raising barriers to entry, which a kill switch mandate would definitely do; but by doing what it can to insure that people can buy their own devices independently of the carriers, and use them on whatever networks will have them; thus reducing or eliminating the control of the carriers over the distribution channel; also doing what it can to minimize barriers to entry for both device manufacturers and carriers (we want more small players).

And you may or may not be old enough to remember a time when cellular telephones were considered a luxury item and were priced accordingly.  Markets often change in unpredictable ways, especially if there isn't a tight little non-cartel running things.  While the market for cellular phones isn't what I'd like it to be, it is still the case that popular features tend to get copied, and the price of manufacturing devices keeps on going down.  So I don't think it a stretch to predict that if the kill switch proves popular, it is highly likely to become a standard feature (just like cameras), even if they are not mandated.  And even now, many smartphones can be locked by the user (this appears to be a standard feature of Android, and I wouldn't be surprised if iOS and Windows Phone have it as well).

Personally, I see the kill switch as one more way to hack into my phone, which doesn't make me warm and fuzzy.

 

 
PaulS681
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PaulS681,
User Rank: Ninja
2/15/2014 | 5:05:31 PM
Remote Wipe
We use SCCM and it does have a Wipe option for phones which does work. This isnt a kill switch but it will wipe your phone. If its wiped and reported stolen theres not a whole lot you can do with it.
PaulS681
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PaulS681,
User Rank: Ninja
2/15/2014 | 5:03:38 PM
Re: Well I for one
@Adam... Tis won't stop chop shop operations. If your phone is reported stolen with most carriers they will place it on a stolen list and you will not be able to activate it again. This doesnt stop them from getting data off of it or selling it for parts.
PaulS681
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PaulS681,
User Rank: Ninja
2/15/2014 | 4:59:19 PM
Re: Well I for one
 

@Tim..I'm sure what you say is true but they aren't going to shutdown cell towers because one phone was stolen. The kill switch is to wipe the data from the phone and render it useless.
TRICE277
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TRICE277,
User Rank: Apprentice
2/15/2014 | 4:31:36 PM
Re: The end of America as we know it
This is all silly. Implementing a Kill Switch on smart phones is such a horribly bad idea I barely know where to start. We can't trust the carriers to keep up with security fixes in the Smart Phone OS's, no way they are going to keep the Kill Switch system secure. Imagine some 13yr punk getting into the system? It's bad enough getting crank calls from them, imagine if they can kill your phone! My iPhone currently has all the technology I need to keep some jerk out of my data. Hardware level encryption and a secure password. The problem is that most people are to freaking LAZY to implement the settings. 10 bad password attempts and the phone is wiped. Data secured. The phone company can always get GPS coordinates off the phone if someone tries to use it, but most likely I would just cancel the service and report it stolen. I would then expect the phone companies to not activate it for someone else later.
JakeB679
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JakeB679,
User Rank: Apprentice
2/15/2014 | 2:43:02 PM
Dont let it happen
As I stated in other forums, the kill switch is the best weapon you can have to hand over to technology terrorist.
I for one will never own a smartphone with this feature. But the really ugly here is this is the first step in to making federal law to tell us what we can have installed on our computers phones and mobile devices,.  Mark my words we will be like the chinese networks.

 

Other than this being a huge money grab
TimO369
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TimO369,
User Rank: Apprentice
2/15/2014 | 2:40:43 PM
Re: Well I for one
The govt does not need kill switch technology to shut down your phones - if they want to shut down communications, they just shut down the cell towers and networks.  The powers to be have the contigency plans and technology in place to accomplish this - it is standard planning for war - control communications...
dgettier
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dgettier,
User Rank: Apprentice
2/15/2014 | 2:25:29 PM
Re: Well I for one
@Adam: if the kill switch in fact doesn't work,  then no I certainly don't think it should be law. I have read in previous articles that it would be effective at some level. Who knows.
dgettier
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dgettier,
User Rank: Apprentice
2/15/2014 | 2:20:56 PM
Re: Still a bad idea
I like your post, and agree that the kill switch should be in the hands of the owners.  However, there is a misconception (among non-economists) that if there is a need, it will always be satisfied. Cell phones are an excellent example. Cell phone makers are making billions preventing the kill switch feature. Cigerettes are another example... RJ Reynolds would not admit to the negative effects of cigerettes, even before Congress.  Food/Restaurants are another example... remove the FDA, and see how safe our food supply remains.  The Cell phone kill switch will not occur unless the government makes it happen.  And I for one am tired of waiting for this simple and effective mechanism to prevent crime and identity theft, only because it is more profitable for cell phone companies to do the wrong thing. 
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