Should All Cell Phones Come With “Kill Switches”?
A majority of Americans now own smartphones, and while that might be great news for app-makers, it’s becoming an increasing headache for law enforcement. About 40% of robberies in major metros across the country involve a cell phone, according to the Federal Communications Commission, and smartphone-driven thefts often take a violent turn. In a few humanity-shaming instances, those altercations have ended in death.
Congress and the FCC have been trying to come up with deterrents, but some state officials say those efforts are insufficient and slow. That’s why a California lawmaker is trying to pass the nation’s first state law mandating that phones have “kill switches,” mechanisms that would easily render devices inoperable if stolen. “The concept is to use a technological solution to curb this ever escalating new form of crime,” says California State Sen. Mark Leno, who will propose the legislation in January with the backing of the San Francisco District Attorney.
In 2012, the FCC helped broker an agreement among the nation’s largest carriers to join forces in a central database, where stolen cell phones can be cataloged. The idea was that someone who jacked a phone that was registered with AT&T would no longer be able to get it reactivated on T-Mobile, thus making life harder for criminals and chilling the black market. The companies balked at first, saying it would be too much trouble and cost to implement, but they caved and finished the process in late November this year.
Critics of the database plan have pointed out that phones are cataloged using identifying numbers that can be manipulated, and it’s not yet a crime to manipulate them in the U.S. The database doesn’t include all countries and carriers—including smaller carriers in the U.S.—meaning it does little to discourage stealing phones so they can be shipped to certain lucrative markets abroad. And it’s not an instantaneous process: a person has to report to their carrier that phone as stolen, that phone’s information has to be logged and that update has to go out to all the carriers using the database. Lag time can provide an opportunity to reprogram the phone before it’s popping up in the system. “The database is too complicated,” says San Francisco District Attorney George Gascón. “There are too many moving parts.”
So what does a simple “kill switch” look like? There is no single definition, and the California officials backing the measure say they’re more interested in mandating that there is one than dictating how it works. But Gascón sees it as having three important parts: being an opt-out system, so that it’s widespread but not infringing on consumer choice; being reversible, so that someone who rediscovers a lost phone can go right back to the way things were; and being effective anywhere in the world, so that the stolen phone would remain a “brick” no matter where it ends up. As a best-so-far model, Gascón points to the “activation lock” feature introduced by Apple earlier this year.
The unclear nature of the “kill switch” isn’t going to be the only point of contention as lawmakers debate the proposal in Sacramento. The association representing carriers like AT&T, Verizon, Sprint and T-Mobile—known as CTIA—has balked at the basic idea, citing concerns about security. “Our members are continuing to explore and offer new technologies to address these crimes, while not inadvertently creating a ‘trap door’ that hackers and cybercriminals could exploit,” it said in a statement to TIME.
Gascón’s office has another theory about their hesitance; his office reviewed emails sent from Samsung to a third-party, in which the phone manufacturer said that carriers were hesitant to make a kill-switch standard on phones because it competed with their lucrative insurance products, a $7 billion market by one estimate. “The carriers are actually becoming a wall here,” Gascón says. “And it appears that this is pretty profit motivated.”
A kill switch could be something like an app that comes preloaded on a phone and allows users to go online and shut down the phone themselves, so that the gadget would never operate again in the absence of a user’s security codes. Leno says those details will be fleshed out in conversations with manufacturers and law enforcement in the new year, when similar legislation may be introduced in New York. “The intent is to make use of technology to make this kind of crime of little value to those who are involved,” he says.