Smartphone Kill Switch: A Solution or Just a New Problem?

Lawmakers believe they have a solution to the widespread dilemma of cell phone theft: a mandatory “kill switch” feature that can turn a hi-tech phone into an inoperative paperweight. What could possibly go wrong?

Kill Switch Combats Crime

(Unless it’s a WindowsPhone.)

As the mobile market continues to expand, cell phone theft has become the larceny du jour for aspiring crooks, rewarding them not only with devices worth hundreds of dollars, but a gold mine of data to use for identity theft. And we make it easy for them; thieves can count on the fact that, while we might not pad our wallets and purses with Benjamins, we never leave home without our smartphones. Experts estimate that cell phone theft costs American citizens billions annually, and the numbers just keep climbing.

In San Francisco, where the FCC estimates that 50% of robberies include cell phone theft, state Senator Mark Leno has introduced a bill that would mandate kill switch technology in all cell phones and tablets sold in California. Proponents of the legislation reason that by rendering stolen phones irreversibly worthless, the thieves are “robbed” of the incentive to steal them.

“This is a crime of convenience,” Leno said. “We end the convenience, we end the crimes; it’s that simple.”

Or is it? When Samsung proposed a similar solution in November, all of the major carriers and the CTIA Wireless Association rejected it. That could understandably be viewed as self-serving (after all, the carriers profit by reselling to people whose phones are stolen), but there are some solid reasons why a kill switch might create more problems than it solves.

Who Watches the Watchmen?

When the idea was originally floated, AT&T, Verizon, Sprint, and T-Mobile all argued that a kill switch feature is an invitation to hackers who might want to exploit it for their own reasons. In the wrong hands, that technology could be used disastrously and irrevocably. It doesn’t take much imagination to see how a phone-bricker might be misused, from petty acts of revenge to coordinated corporate attacks. Is the possibility of reducing theft worth the risk?

Let’s look at it from another angle: how long would it be until the government, the NSA, Homeland Security, etc. demanded access to (or secretly commandeered) the kill switch security system? There would be any number of good uses for it—dismantling terrorist communications at vital moments, neutralizing phones that are linked to explosives, and so forth. But just like the recent NSA wiretapping fiasco, that kind of power can quickly get out of hand, even when it begins (ostensibly) with good intentions. If a cell phone kill switch is enacted, its misuse will be inevitable.

"Whoops, I killed Justin Bieber's phone...again..."

Whoops, I killed Justin Bieber’s phone…again…

The potential for abuse would be bad, but there’s an even bigger problem with Senator Leno’s premise. A kill switch might deter the casual crooks and the opportunistic thieves, but the serious criminals and hackers will be the ones who figure out how to disable the security feature before it’s triggered, how to kill the kill switch. Then what? They’ll be able to circumvent it, while the average American citizen will likely see no reason to, leaving them vulnerable to the misuse of the technology. It wouldn’t be the first time that a regulation attempt backfired.

Although the carriers and CTIA oppose the legislation of a mandatory, irreversible device kill switch, they do have other suggestions for reducing cell phone theft. They’ve already cooperated to implement an integrated database of devices sold in the USA, to help prevent stolen phones from being reactivated. While far from a perfect solution, the potential repercussions are at least less severe.

How would you feel about having your devices embedded with a kill switch? Would you feel more or less secure?

photo credit: Kevan via photopin cc
photo credit: Andwar via photopin cc
photo credit: Andrew Huff via photopin cc


Brent Urmey is an avid reader and writer on a variety of subjects, including social media, SEO, the Wireless industry, and life in Lancaster County, PA. He is a graduate of Drexel University and a survivor of the 2012 Mayan Apocalypse. You can connect with Brent on Google +.