POSTED BY Caroline Carollo

Smartphone theft is a major problem in the United States, and the number of smartphone-related robberies has significantly increased over the past couple of years.  These thefts make up between 30 to 40 percent of all robberies across the country.  In 2012, approximately 1.6 Americans were victims of smartphone theft, and consumers in the U.S. spent more than $30 billion in recovering cell phones.  In San Francisco, California, cell phone thefts make up 66 percent of all robberies, and in Oakland, California, that number increases to over 75 percent.

In an effort to curb smartphone theft, as well as the violence that often accompanies these robberies, several lawmakers around the country have come together to promote the Secure Our Smartphone initiative to urge phone carriers to include a “kill switch” in their devices.  On February 7, 2014, California State Senator Mark Leno and San Francisco District Attorney George Gascon took this initiative a step further and introduced a bill (Senate Bill 962) that would require the inclusion of a “kill switch” in phones sold in the state.  If the bill is passed, any phone sold after January 1, 2015 would require the security feature, which would prevent the phone from operating if stolen.  Although the phone’s owner would not be required to keep the security feature, the purpose of the bill is to guarantee that the feature is preloaded on the phone.  The user would then have the option to disable the feature and opt-out of the system.  The prediction is that thieves will be deterred from stealing smartphones, knowing that such a security device is in place.

One week after California Senate Bill 962 was proposed, federal lawmakers put forward a similar bill.  On February 13, U.S. senators introduced national legislation to require a method of disabling smartphones remotely.  Like the California bill, the goal of this proposed bill is to deter theft and protect consumers.

Nevertheless, the proposed legislation is facing resistance from the phone carriers.  Several U.S. carriers have already stated they would not support such a feature, including AT&T, Verizon, Sprint, T-Mobile, and US Cellular.  The wireless industry has voiced concerns over the possibility of increasing the chance of hacking if the antitheft technology is required.  The CTIA, a telecom industry group, discussed how the technical details involved in the remote transmission of a “kill message” would be broadly known among mobile operators.  Consequently, it would be difficult to prevent hackers from remotely sending those kill messages and shutting down customers’ phones permanently.  The problem becomes even more serious when imagining hackers disabling an entire group of customers, such as the Department of Defense or law enforcement.  There are also concerns over unintended consequences.  For example, a permanent kill switch could have unintended consequences for customers who eventually find their lost phones.

Proponents of the proposed antitheft security feature believe the resistance coming from mobile carriers is largely motivated by money, and that carriers are prioritizing profit over safety.  It seems likely that business relationships, such as with insurance companies, play a role in carriers’ opposition for such a bill.  Indeed, mobile carriers make billions every year from selling theft insurance to their customers.

While I agree with the sentiment that steps need to be taken to reduce the number of cell phone thefts, I am not completely convinced that a kill switch is the answer.  While it appears that it could be an effective solution in theory, I do worry about the possibility of hacking and of unintended consequences.  Individuals need to be more aware of their surroundings and should resist the urge to take out their phones in public.  While maybe not the strongest deterrent, I do find that the “Find my Phone” application that users can download on their iPhones serves as a deterrent nonetheless, and more people should consider downloading this feature.  Ultimately, I believe more research should be done on how kill switch technology will operate, and how to fix the inevitable glitches, before implementing such a feature.

Smartphone theft is a major problem in the United States, and the number of smartphone-related robberies has significantly increased over the past couple of years.  These thefts make up between 30 to 40 percent of all robberies across the country.  In 2012, approximately 1.6 Americans were victims of smartphone theft, and consumers in the U.S. spent more than $30 billion in recovering cell phones.  In San Francisco, California, cell phone thefts make up 66 percent of all robberies, and in Oakland, California, that number increases to over 75 percent.

In an effort to curb smartphone theft, as well as the violence that often accompanies these robberies, several lawmakers around the country have come together to promote the Secure Our Smartphone initiative to urge phone carriers to include a “kill switch” in their devices.  On February 7, 2014, California State Senator Mark Leno and San Francisco District Attorney George Gascon took this initiative a step further and introduced a bill (Senate Bill 962) that would require the inclusion of a “kill switch” in phones sold in the state.  If the bill is passed, any phone sold after January 1, 2015 would require the security feature, which would prevent the phone from operating if stolen.  Although the phone’s owner would not be required to keep the security feature, the purpose of the bill is to guarantee that the feature is preloaded on the phone.  The user would then have the option to disable the feature and opt-out of the system.  The prediction is that thieves will be deterred from stealing smartphones, knowing that such a security device is in place.

One week after California Senate Bill 962 was proposed, federal lawmakers put forward a similar bill.  On February 13, U.S. senators introduced national legislation to require a method of disabling smartphones remotely.  Like the California bill, the goal of this proposed bill is to deter theft and protect consumers.

Nevertheless, the proposed legislation is facing resistance from the phone carriers.  Several U.S. carriers have already stated they would not support such a feature, including AT&T, Verizon, Sprint, T-Mobile, and US Cellular.  The wireless industry has voiced concerns over the possibility of increasing the chance of hacking if the antitheft technology is required.  The CTIA, a telecom industry group, discussed how the technical details involved in the remote transmission of a “kill message” would be broadly known among mobile operators.  Consequently, it would be difficult to prevent hackers from remotely sending those kill messages and shutting down customers’ phones permanently.  The problem becomes even more serious when imagining hackers disabling an entire group of customers, such as the Department of Defense or law enforcement.  There are also concerns over unintended consequences.  For example, a permanent kill switch could have unintended consequences for customers who eventually find their lost phones.

Proponents of the proposed antitheft security feature believe the resistance coming from mobile carriers is largely motivated by money, and that carriers are prioritizing profit over safety.  It seems likely that business relationships, such as with insurance companies, play a role in carriers’ opposition for such a bill.  Indeed, mobile carriers make billions every year from selling theft insurance to their customers.

While I agree with the sentiment that steps need to be taken to reduce the number of cell phone thefts, I am not completely convinced that a kill switch is the answer.  While it appears that it could be an effective solution in theory, I do worry about the possibility of hacking and of unintended consequences.  Individuals need to be more aware of their surroundings and should resist the urge to take out their phones in public.  While maybe not the strongest deterrent, I do find that the “Find my Phone” application that users can download on their iPhones serves as a deterrent nonetheless, and more people should consider downloading this feature.  Ultimately, I believe more research should be done on how kill switch technology will operate, and how to fix the inevitable glitches, before implementing such a feature.

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