Feb 07, 2014

Are there legitimate reasons to oppose smartphone kill switches?

There have been efforts by consumer groups to have “kill switches” built into smartphones so that if the devices are lost or stolen, the kill switch can be remotely activated, making them useless and preventing theft of data. This would remove much of the incentive for theft of devices, and would seem to be a good idea. Nevertheless, carriers have universally opposed requirements for a kill switch, and as far as I know none have agreed to it voluntarily. Do the carriers have legitimate reasons for opposing kill switches?


A bill titled the Smartphone Theft Prevention Act was just introduced in the US Senate. If enacted, this would create a Federal Law to mandate the inclusion of “kill switches” in smartphones. However, since it imposes regulation on a business, it is almost certainly going to be filibustered in the Senate, and if it is passed by the Senate, will be unlikely to even be scheduled for a vote by the GOP controlled House. If you have any interest in this issue, you could call your congressman and senators to let them know that it is important to you.

Doesn't Apple already do something like this in the iPhone? I seem to remember reading about it a while back.

The only problem with kill switches is that some thieves may not understand that they exist. Let's face it, a lot of these criminals aren't very bright so the kill switch is not a deterrent to them if they aren't aware of it or if they just don't care.

Sure they have a “legitimate” reason - profits. In the US replacement of lost and stolen cell phones costs $30 billion a year with insurance adding another $7.8 billion in carrier profits (source  - SFGate). After all, if someone steals your $500 device what are you going to do? That’s right - pay for another one. It’s estimated that the majority of robberies in some cities is now smartphone theft. Not only is that a huge amount of financial loss in aggregate, it also means that there are many opportunities for the victim to be injured. This is something I have personally experience, when I interrupted a guy beating an old man with a baseball bat to steal his phone. This old guy ended up with a fractured skull and a severed temporal artery because some thug wanted to steal his phone. If there was a kill switch to make the device useless, it would remove much of the incentive for these sort of crimes.


To be fair, the official reason given by CITA, the trade association for opposing kill switches, is that it might make them more vulnerable to hacking. I’d like to see some proof of that, and I'm not sure it outweighs the benefits of a kill switch even if true. 

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