A recent Star Tribune article noted that state and federal lawmakers are attempting to pass legislation mandating a “kill switch” for smartphones. On the surface, this seems like a pretty good idea – after all, many of us are walking around with handheld devices worth hundreds of dollars, and those devices are a natural target for thieves. If a customer can contact their service provider and get the device permanently shut down, the smartphone loses its value on the black market, deterring the theft in the first place.
But there’s a downside to this kill switch technology, which may not be obvious at first glance. Some might call it a useful feature, but others see a bug which is more likely to impact users than the problem it solves.
Let’s remember that it’s only the idea of a kill-switch which is useful – the concept is to have it act as a deterrent. The thief suddenly chooses not steal your phone because the market for stolen phones is depressed; customers are now able to contact their service provider and have that phone shut down.
Since technical details are still unclear at this early stage, it’s impossible to outline all the ways this concept is flawed. But there are a few different scenarios which should be outlined in order to note how this kill switch would harm consumers.
The first is the most obvious – that this feature will be abused by law enforcement. The kill switch will undoubtedly be asked to be activated against someone suspected of committing a crime, and possibly against those who have contacted a suspect. Taking videos of a police officer is now an act that could revoke your cellular privileges. Participating in a protest could also result in your phone being shut off since you could use it to communicate with others about where riot police are gathering – it’s for your own safety.
The second thing to remember is that the kill switch is permanent. So when you’ve lost your phone and may have left it in a cab or between the couch cushions, once your phone has been disabled (which is a good idea if you have an sensitive data on your phone, such as access to your email), you’ll be buying a new one, which is exactly what the kill switch is supposed to prevent. In the Marketplace article linked above, the subject mentions he’s had his phone stolen three times, and gotten it back twice. Why bother getting it back if you’ve reported the theft and the carrier has had it rendered permanently inoperable?
There are those out there who think that carriers are refusing to install kill switches on their phones because they sell more phones this way, that phone thefts are a good way to keep reaching into their customers’ pockets. A reminder about the players in this game is in order: carriers still essentially buy phones from manufacturers like HTC and Apple, and resell them at very little markup – the carriers still make a bulk of their profits through plans. In fact, the addition of a kill switch to smartphones would negatively impact the used-phone market and force consumers to buy new devices – you really want to take a chance buying a used phone on ebay if it can be turned off at a moment’s notice or is already bricked?
Next, let’s look at another problem – shadowy hackers! Anyone out there know how cheaply a fake cell tower can be constructed? At DEFCON in 2010, it was about $1500. And if you’ve seen more recent videos of people making these things, you know they’re cheaper and more effective now – there’s no way to stop your phone from connecting to them if properly created. What happens when a fake cell tower transmits a kill signal to every phone that connects to it? Some police departments already have these fake cell towers – they’re generically called “IMSI catchers” and one commercial model is called KingFish.
If kill switches are mandated by law, expect problems such as those listed above. Worse yet, if these phones that have kill switches are ever able to be re-activated, thieves will figure it out, the deterrent effect is gone, and phone theft will continue. Your phone will be almost the same as before, but now could be shut down at any time.
So how do we prevent smartphone theft? Well, most of us carry objects worth hundreds or thousands of dollars every day – they’re called wallets. They have IDs, credit cards, and cash in them. Wallets are often secured in a similar manner to a cell phone – in a pocket or a purse. But when I get on the bus to go to work, no one is mindlessly playing Candy Crush on their wallet.
I know legislators are well-intentioned, and they’re probably just trying to help. And they always score points when they take on companies that are generally reviled, like phone companies. But there are more important battles to fight than this one, and the idea of a cellphone kill switch creates more problems than it solves.