Mobile phone “kill switches” to be law in California, but critics worry about misuse

Phone theft

The governor of California signed a law on Monday that will require all mobile phones sold in the state to include an activated “kill switch” as of July 2015, which will ensure the owner of a stolen phone can freeze the device and wipe its contents from a remote location.

While the California measure is popular at a time when mobile phone theft has become a serious crime problem in many cities, it will not make a major difference to most consumers and phone makers. The reason for this is that the two largest phone makers, Apple and Samsung, already have “kill switch” software installed.

Apple’s “Find my iPhone” (found under Settings -> iCloud), for instance, has since 2013 let users instruct a missing phone to delete data or display a lost “Please call me” message:

Find iPhone screenshot

Now, as a result of the law in California, kill switches are likely to be ubiquitous across the country by next year. (The California law is actually the second of its kind in the country. Minnesota passed a kill switch law in May, though its version is regarded as less effective since it does not require the device to be sold with the “kill” feature to be turned on.)

The California measure is expected to take a bite out of phone theft, just as engine immobilizers caused the number of stolen cars to plummet. But not everyone is happy about the law.

Hackers and a “back door” for police

Despite the popularity of kill switch laws, they have been slow to arrive in large part because carriers like AT&T and Verizon have vigorously opposed them. The carriers claim that kill switches are a security risk for hackers, and there may be something to this given recent tales of bad guys freezing phones until a ransom is paid. Cynics, meanwhile, say the real reason for carriers’ kill switch opposition is that they are afraid of losing the money they make by selling anti-theft insurance.

Whatever their motives, however, the carriers may have a point that mandated kill switches are not always a good idea. According to the Electronic Frontier Foundation, which opposed the California law, such rules could lock in anti-theft “solutions” that will become outdated from a technological standpoint, and become a burden for manufacturers or app makers.

More seriously, there is the risk that the kill switch feature could be an easy way for police to cut off communications at protests or other public events. As the EFF’s Adi Kamdar points out, the kill switches offers a blanket means for police to shut down opposition:

The issue of law enforcement abuse, however, is a more pressing concern. After cell service shutdowns during the BART protests a few years ago, California set into place law that ostensibly prevented law enforcement from ever engaging in similar acts again. The law, however, codifies a roadmap of sorts — it lays out exactly what needs to happen for law enforcement to shut down communications service. Kill switch bills, like California’s, provide a technical roadmap on top of this legal roadmap by mandating a backdoor of sorts be implemented on all phones.

These concerns, however, are unlikely to undercut the popularity of kill switches with consumers who are fed up with “Apple picking” and who just want mobile phone crime to stop. But given ongoing scandal over government phone surveillance, and recent revelations about private companies that sell location-tracking tools, the public may wish to think about the long term implications of the technology “solutions” they embrace.

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