Will the Carriers Kill Kill Switches?

Carl Weinschenk
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Whether or not kill switches, or automated systems for transforming smartphones, tablets or similar devices from telecommunications tools into paperweights, become mandatory will have a big impact on business due to ever-wider acceptance of Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) approaches.

Smartphones are expensive and relatively easy to swipe. This makes theft one of the biggest problems facing the mobile industry. A kill switch presumably would reduce criminals’ motivation. An effort is under way on the federal level and in New York and California to require such functionality.

A study by a Creighton University associate professor of statistics illustrates the potential savings associated with kit switches. William Duckworth said that $2.6 billion per year could be saved, according to an IT World report. Currently, Duckworth estimates that Americans spend about $580 million replacing stolen phones and $4.8 billion in mobile device insurance. The savings would come from both sources: Reduced theft means that fewer new phones would need to be purchased and would lead owners to reduce the amount of insurance they purchase.

These savings, and strong support for the approach that Duckworth found in responses to a survey he conducted through ResearchNow of 1,200 phone users, make incorporation of the switches look like a no-brainer.

The Wall Street Journal story on the introduction of the kill switch legislation in New York State offers interesting background. About one in three property crimes nationwide involves a communications device. The devices often end up on the black market overseas.

Some numbers from the story: About 1.6 million Americans had a smartphone stolen in 2012 and, in 2013, about half the robberies in San Francisco involved smartphones. New York City lagged “behind,” with 20 percent of robberies involving a phone. That was, however, a 40 percent increase over 2012. IPhones were the most likely to end up in the wrong hands: 8,000 were reported stolen in 2013, which was 18 percent of all grand larcenies.

So what is the counter-argument? There are some technical complexities, such as the possibility that the kill switch can be activated by hackers. There also is a financial stumbling block: Neutralizing this type of crime would reduce revenue from insurance premiums and may be playing against proponents, according to Jason Fell at Entrepreneur:

Late last year, a trade group representing mobile carriers including Verizon and AT&T, T-Mobile and Sprint rejected an initiative started by lawmakers in New York and San Francisco to encourage smartphone makers to make kill switches on new phones. No wonder, since they'd effectively lose a significant revenue source.

The business community should call its lobbyists and get the kill switch approved, preferably on the federal level. Removing a main temptation for thefts of phones and tablets, more of which are carrying corporate data every day, is more important than preserving an easy revenue stream for carriers.

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