California "Kill Switch" Proposal Goes Federal, Still a Bad Idea

Businesses and consumers will come up with the best solutions


not quite drugs on the table

Lawmakers 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.