The Smartphone Kill Switch to Become a Reality

Carl Weinschenk
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The handset vendor and carrier industry sectors have come around on smartphone kill switches, at least to some extent.

The rise of smartphone theft has led to pressure to install circuitry on smartphones that “bricks,” or ends operations, of a phone. The logic is simple: If phones are rendered inert, the motivation to steal them will disappear. Vendors and carriers, however, had resisted this approach. They say that bad hackers (“crackers”) may find ways to use the technology to wreak havoc with legitimate users’ phones.

Last year, the mobile industry group CTIA said as much in a filing with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). This week, however, the trade group has changed its tune.  The organization released a document entitled the “Smartphone Anti-Theft Voluntary Commitment” that pledges to provide “baseline anti-theft tools” in devices manufactured after July 2015 at no cost to consumers.


The CTIA press release says that the tools will be capable of remotely wiping devices of data, rendering them inoperable and preventing reactivation without the authorized users’ permission. The tools will be able to reverse inoperability and restore data as far as possible if recovered by the authorized user. Participants of the agreement are Apple, Asurion, AT&T, Google, HTC America, Huawei Devices USA, Motorola Mobility, Microsoft, Nokia, Samsung, Sprint, T-Mobile, U.S. Cellular and Verizon Wireless.

A CNET story has reaction from two Attorneys General, San Francisco’s George Gascon and New York’s Eric Schneiderman, who have advocated for the kill switch. The statement said that the move is a “welcome step” that doesn’t go far enough because the tools are not activated by default and rely on consumer opt-in.

That is a bone of contention for proponents: The usage rate of a feature, particularly one that doesn’t enhance performance, is destined to be low if it requires an action on the part of users. The thugs know this. The power of deterrence is gone if there only is a marginal chance that the phone a thug is about to swipe has the kill switch tool deployed.

Two important questions and an assumption to this debate should be considered. The first question: What is the level of technical merit in the industry’s position that kill switches can be taken over by crackers? The second: What damage is done to the effectiveness of such a program by not mandating that kill capabilities be turned on by default? And, finally, the assumption: The final rules will be determined as much, or perhaps more, by politics and not by the answer to these two questions.



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