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Do our phones need a kill switch?

A showdown is brewing with local politicians on one side and mobile carriers on the other about whether mobile phones should contain “kill switches,” the New York Times Bits blog reported earlier today. The idea is that if phones could be remotely bricked when stolen, then we’d have a big theft deterrent.

Apparently San Francisco’s District Attorney George Gascón has been working with Samsung on an agreement that would include such kill-switch software on all devices that the handset maker sells in the U.S., but carriers have come out against it. Gascón gave Bits a rather nefarious reason for their opposition: carriers make a lot of money off selling phone insurance, so a decrease in phone theft would cut into this lucrative revenue source.

If true, that’s a ridiculously cynical position for the carriers to take. I question the carriers intentions on many, many things, and I know their interests often don’t align with those of consumers, but this one is a bit hard to swallow. Gascón references a series of email exchanges to back up his accusations, but he didn’t produce them for The Times.

My experience and my friends’ experience with phone insurance has hardly been positive. Limits on the type of claims you can make and crappy replacement phones produce resentment, not goodwill. Carriers make their money on selling $80-a-month voice and data plans to customers who stick with them for years on end, not $7-a-month insurance premiums. My bet is they would much rather keep their customers content than sell them insurance plans.

But as Bits points out, carrier lobbying group CTIA has come out against such kill switch proposals. The organization maintains that its stolen phone database, which can deactivate phones reported missing, does the trick. That’s clearly not the case, since the international trafficking of stolen cellphones eludes the database. Carriers could clearly be doing much more to prevent phone theft, but as with so many things requiring industry action carriers are dragging their feet.

Basically, we’ve got ourselves an old-fashioned political throw down, and both sides are just talking stupid. I doubt it’s doing consumers any good. My question is why is this is even a debate in the first place. If a kill switch is something consumers want, why doesn’t Samsung or any other device maker simply implement it? Apple(s aapl) didn’t get CTIA’s permission or strike a deal with the San Francisco DA’s office when it launched its Activation Lock anti-theft feature. It just did it, and many a iPhone user is probably thanking Apple because of it.

Ultimately carriers will sell devices with features their consumers want to buy – and theft deterrence is clearly one that has growing appeal among consumers as well as law enforcement. You don’t have to be a believer in free-market economics to see this debate is ridiculous.

Feature image courtesy of Shutterstock user A1Stock

6 Responses to “Do our phones need a kill switch?”

  1. i order to put this into context it is very important to understand the difference between Samsung’s ‘app’ and for example apples activation lock. apples solution disable the phone so it can not be used without being unlocked by the owner and is a free built in feature. what samsung wants to do is install an app that allows customers to purchase on a paid subscription basis a service that both locks the phone if lost and offers a replacement insurance policy to the one offered by the carrier.

    this is not a ‘kill switch’ but more of an alternative insurance policy that offers a ‘kill switch’ as one of the features to paying customers. i doubt the carriers would object if samsung did it the way apple does.

  2. why would anyone want one more backdoor? lets subject ourselves to even more abuses from carriers,phone makers,govs ,because it’s not bad enough how we don’t really have control over our phones.
    you really think the cops want this to fight phone theft? really? they are smarter than that.
    we should fight teeth and nails against this ,unless security and privacy are not something you desire.

  3. i want to add one other thing. go to downtown in any big city and offer to sell a phone. the shop keeper will likely check the blacklist and if its blacklisted than bargain down the price saying ‘i have to send it overseas so can’t pay as much’ this include pawn shop employees. the phones are than openly sold ‘for overseas use only’

    known stolen phones are very easy to sell, while i am not a used phone dealer myself i spend a lot of time in cell phone shops since i offer jailbreaking, rooting, flashing and unlocking services. the only thing that the blacklist has done is increase stolen phone profits for dealers who send phones overseas since they have an excuse to pay less and the seller except.

  4. apple activation lock is cool, but i wold be better if it could be activated after the fact. also the national stolen phone database used to blacklist phones is not aligned with apples databases of activation locks. perhaps apple could block activation of any phone on the national blacklist. that would prevent for example a new sealed in the box phone from being useful overseas.

    you may say the idea of a new sealed in the box phone being in a stolen database is strange, but i can tell you from first hand experience in the second hand phone business it is actually quite common.