Apr 18, 2014

Will all US smartphones have a kill switch in 2015?

After years of the wireless industry arguing against having kill switches in smartphones and opposing regulations that would mandate it, there was an announcement that kill switches would be in devices starting in 2015. Is this going to be a mandatory industry wide standard, or is this just an effort at window dressing where some devices will have it included to avoid actual regulation?

Why don't carriers want a 'kill switch' for stolen phones?

"But according to a U.S. Federal Communications filing made by CTIA, a kill switch would be an attractive target to hackers. Hackers could find out the kill message on a phone and disable it remotely. This is a particular risk for people who work in defense or law enforcement. Further, phones could be permanently disabled if multiple messages were sent [sources: Schwartz, Ribeiro]. The idea that hackers could worm their way into a smartphone's code and use it to bypass built-in safeguards like logins and passwords is alarming.

Kill switch proponents, however, are quick to blame the CTIA's reluctance to adopt the technology on another reason: profit. Smartphone carriers offer stolen-phone coverage through consumer insurance programs. The top four wireless carriers in the U.S. -- AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile and Verizon -- will bill an estimated $7.8 billion in protection plan premiums in 2013 [source: Warranty Week]."

It looks like it will be universal, but it isn’t mandatory. All of the major carriers have agreed to this measure, and most of the handset manufacturers, although I did notice that LG was missing from the CTIA press release. Let’s face it, stolen phones generated a lot of revenue for carriers and helped sell a lot of insurance plans. CTIA's position started to change only when people begin to catch on that not only was it easily possible to add a “kill switch”, some carriers were actively disabling kill switches on the few phones that had them. Carriers tried to say they were opposing kill switches to protect customers, but people are not that stupid, and there was finally a push for federal regulation to mandate kill switches. For a business, voluntary compliance is always preferable to legally mandated compliance, after all if they don’t do it properly there is no penalty provision if compliance is voluntary. This is a win for everyone except theives and their passive partners, the carriers. 

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