California “Kill Switch” Proposal Goes Federal, Still a Bad Idea

not quite drugs on the tableCNNLawmakers in California have been pushing legislation that would require cellphones sold in the state to include a “kill switch,” a way to shut down the cellphone remotely in case it were lost or stolen, and now four Democrat senators have introduced a similar proposal for the federal level. It’s a bad idea, not just because it’s a half-baked scheme concocted by busybody legislators reflexively in response to the perceived trend of smartphone thefts. For example, in San Francisco, half of all robberies reportedly involve a mobile device. But when mobile devices are ubiquitous in most American cities, the conclusion that mobile devices are driving thefts, and thus disabling stolen phones could deter theft, is flimsy.

On the other hand, when wireless carriers point out the many pitfalls of such legislation, the legislation’s supporters, like San Francisco’s attorney general, accuse the companies of profit (from insurance plans) over safety. PC Magazine reported on wireless carriers’ opposition to a kill switch proposal floated by Samsung (with prodding from San Francisco’s and New York state’s attorneys general) last November:

CTIA, the wireless trade association that represents all the major U.S. carriers, said in a June fact sheet, however, that kill switches pose "very serious risks."

"If created, this capability would be in every handset and the 'kill' message would be known to every operator and therefore could not be kept secret," CTIA argued. If that falls into the wrong hands, it "could be used to disable entire groups of customers, such as Department of Defense, Homeland Security or emergency services/law enforcement."

A disabled device would not be able to make emergency calls, CTIA said, while those who disable lost phones would have to pay hundreds of dollars for a new device, even if they found the old phone.

The wireless trade association highlighted other ways to “dry up the aftermarket for stolen phones,” like a database carriers are working on for stolen devices.

Apple introduced a “kill switch” of sorts in an iOS update last year. That feature, called “Activation Lock,” rolled out with iOS 7, appears to require your Apple ID before you can wipe a phone clean for re-use. Apple’s new offering likely filled some kind of market desire for the feature. Other phone makers, and the carriers they rely on to work with their phones, will make their own determinations, based on what’s technically feasible, what customers want, and what they are willing to pay for. Intervention by lawmakers only serves to distort that process and force a solution that is unlikely to be the kind of most mutually beneficial one that would emerge from the market’s workings.

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  • Canman||

    Isn't there an elephant that steps on smart phones in the room?

  • ||

    In this case, it happens to be a donkey.

  • Jerry on the boat||

    Can't network operators just use a blacklist of MAC addresses?

  • ||

    Couldn't you use a list like this to keep track of stolen phones? You know, if you wanted to keep tabs on actual terrorists or criminals. With a little 'beat work' you might be able to actually apprehend them or prevent theft.

    Nevermind, kill the phone and spy on the people using them legally.

  • Skonkey||

    When I worked for Sprint, every phone's serial number was loaded in a DB. If your phone as lost or stolen it was marked so and your line was suspended.

  • ||

    CDMA and GSM carriers maintain ESN and IMEI blacklists, respectively.

  • PapayaSF||

    Yeah, I really don't understand how a good blacklist based on MAC addresses wouldn't do the same thing, without any of the potential problems of a kill switch.

  • Free Society||

    Because it's about power, not crime prevention.

  • ||

    Here, let us trade a little freedom for a little security for you...

  • Almanian!||

    Uh, PRETTY SURE this is one of the Top Five Wants on Americans' list of Wants.

    Why do you hate the American Public®, Ed?

  • ||

    You can already disable your account so they can't make calls, so this is really just about the cost of the phone.

    If phones are so expensive that they have become a target for theft, maybe you should buy a cheaper phone.

    Or maybe you should strap a bomb to your car's engine so if someone steals it you can remote control blow it up.

  • Lost_In_Translation||

    Or maybe you should strap a bomb to your car's engine so if someone steals it you can remote control blow it up.
    *removes glasses*
    He met the ultimate KILL swich...YEEEEAAAAAAAHHHHHH

  • Paul.||

    Wait a minute... wait a goddamned minute. There already IS and always HAS been a 'kill switch' on Cell phones. What are these benders talking about?

  • Paul.||

    CTIA argued. If that falls into the wrong hands, it "could be used to disable entire groups of customers, such as Department of Defense, Homeland Security or emergency services/law enforcement."

    Wait a minute... whoa... hang on. Now they got my attention...

    Why is the Kill Switch a bad thing?

  • Fist of Etiquette||

    "Hey, Sarge, there's a couple guys filming this beatdown. Hit the kill switch."

  • Duke Trshmnstr of Stench||

    I can't tell if you're implying they kill everybody at the scene, their dogs, or their cell phones...

    awww, who am i kidding? All of the above!

  • Fist of Etiquette||

    Kill switch AKA trigger.

  • Lost_In_Translation||

    When our robot overlords start turning usinto batteries, you'll thank your lucky stars that the government mandated this kill switch.

  • Anonymous Coward||

    We in the government promise to never seize and use this technology to violate the rights of the citi....

    BWAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA!! Sorry, I couldn't hold it together!

  • ace_m82||

    I thought that drone strikes were the cell phone "kill switch"?

  • Agammamon||

    You have been registered as a participant in an illegal demonstration. Cell phone service has been discontinued.

  • califernian||

    it "could be used to disable entire groups of customers, such as Department of Defense, Homeland Security or emergency services/law enforcement.

    Wait, this sounds like a feature not a bug.

  • Invisible Finger||

    it "could be used to disable entire groups of customers, such as Department of Defense, Homeland Security or emergency services/law enforcement."

    What's not to like?

    Apple introduced a “kill switch” of sorts in an iOS update last year. That feature, called “Activation Lock,” rolled out with iOS 7, appears to require your Apple ID before you can wipe a phone clean for re-use.

    Why would you care about the phone being wiped clean? I'd care more about the contents being taken and used by someone else. I thought this was called "Passcode lock", which erases the device after 10 consecutive failed passcode attempts. I use this on my Apple device in case someone like Department of Defense, Homeland Security or emergency services/law enforcement seizes my device. I can temporarily forget my passcode and make them guess it and wipe the device that way. If my device is in the wrong hands, either private or government thieves, well that sucks but I just don't want its contents used to fuck me up. I can get a replacement device and rebuild what I need,

  • jimpeel||

    There is a very simple, free -- for up to three devices -- app that anyone can get from http://preyproject.com/. That app allows you to report the phone/device as missing/stolen and find it or shut it down remotely. There is even a function that allows you to send a code to the device that makes it start beeping if you think you are close. You will get e-mail reports on the geo-location of the device and you can see webpages they are surfing and, if the device has a camera, a picture of the person using it. You can also "brick" the device if you choose.

    also ...

    In the app store locate an app called "applock". It is free. The icon is of a safe with disks pouring out of it. This one allows you to selectively turn on or off the phone functions and apps. I have the phone set to allow them to receive a call without a code so I can call them to find out where it is. They cannot use the apps or see my messages or pictures, etc. Everything is selectable by you as to its visibility/useability and you can secure them with a numeric or swipe code including access to the applock app.

  • plusafdotcom||

    So, it would be a good idea that "certain officials" might be able to shut off individual or groups of cell phones? What could possibly go wrong??? Like a terrorist group figuring out how to disable their intended victims' capability to identify them or call for help?

    Yeah.. couldn't happen, right? Nobody ever spends ANY good time thinking about unintended consequences...

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