Kill Switch Vol. 4 . . . Is “Big Brother” Your Smartphone Answer?
Much has been made of the SOS (Save Our Smartphones) coalition and its initiative: Make it easy to disable lost or stolen smartphones and other devices by using a “kill switch” feature. In other words, make disabling your smartphone as easy as cancelling a credit card. This initiative has been presented to the manufacturers of mobile devices – Samsung, Apple, Microsoft, to name but a few – but business response has been uneven, tepid at best.
The SOS thinking is straightforward: By using the kill switch, take away a smartphone’s resale value. Block the ability to reactivate it. The opportunity to resell it – or to use its stored personal information – disappears. Therefor, the incentive to steal it is eliminated.
The result? According to SOS, it is protection – protection for the individual smartphone user whose life and personal information may be in jeopardy if his mobile device ends up in the wrong hands. (According to SOS, the kill switch would reduce street-level theft and violent crime in the U.S. by as much as 40 %.)
However, industry analysts and experts immediately point to two weaknesses: (1) The kill-switch feature isn’t close to being foolproof – so there will always be a “back door” for hackers. (2) If lost or stolen, many smartphones can be disabled right now (but importantly, as of right now this exists only within specific database boundaries).
The second weakness needs explanation.
In 2012 the FCC (Federal Communications Commission) and CTIA – The Wireless Association (an international nonprofit organization representing the wireless communications industry) created a database in the U.S., to prevent the use of stolen mobile devices.
Initially, law enforcement officials across the U.S. were extremely happy this had been done. However, after a database “test drive,” they also said it did not come close to solving the problem. In a letter to the FCC, Philadelphia Police Commissioner Charles Ramey summed it up:
Many smartphones that are disabled still have the capacity to access Wi-Fi networks, or may be operable with carriers not in the database.
Did somebody miss the boat? Not really. As it turns out, many carriers – some as large as Verizon or Virgin, others regional or with trans-international ties – opted not to be included in the ambitious database. (Quite often, these carriers expressed that divulging information would be a breach of customer “confidentiality.”) Without the unified “on board” agreement of carriers – and countries – a comprehensive database was not possible.
Also “anti” this database concept were concerned watchdog individuals and groups – such as the ACLU – who believed such information collection was contrary to individual rights and freedoms. (They pointed to surveillance by the NSA, to government initiatives for a national DNA databank, and to local incursions such as stop-and-frisk and profiling to underscore their arguments.)
To be fair, many smartphone victims – in hindsight – might disagree with all the above.
This may be why law enforcement and government agencies – and the SOS – are eager to grasp at something, to support kill-switch technology. For many, it is the only – even if it is flawed – tangible solution available to a global problem: Identity theft and violent crime.
By the time you have finished reading this, more than 300 smartphones in the U.S. will be added to the list of those lost through carelessness or stolen (often through violent street crime).
— Stephen Heath-Jones