Are Smartphone Kill Switches Smart?

In 2005, I remember having a friend who was able to report his phone stolen and was able to lock it out so that the thief wouldn’t be able to authenticate into a cellular network with it. Fast forward to the 2010s, and we’re met with a situation in which government is not only endorsing kill switches, but making them mandatory. Is there anything to this? Are kill switches really a good idea for the purposes they serve? What purpose does a kill-switch even serve? As always, we will dive into the subject head-first and answer all these questions!

To be brief, a cellular kill switch is a mechanism used to disable a phone through hardware or software in such a way that renders it unusable for any normal purpose (other than a paperweight). For smartphones, the situation is a bit more nuanced. Is it enough to just cut off access to cellular networks by blacklisting its IMEI number?

Since smartphones also have access to Wi-Fi, simply cutting them off from cellular terrestrial networks only gets rid of half of their usability. Kill-switches must be more active. Certain pieces of software – such as Avast!, Lookout, and Prey – allow users to lock their phones in such a way that they are completely useless.

The premise behind kill switches, which you may have already gathered from context, is to disable a phone in the event that it is stolen, making it valueless to the thief. Thieves not only want your physical device, but they also want to access your data so that they can extract value (through hacking your PayPal, home banking, etc.) from it. Locking your phone not only turns it into a brick (in a worst-case scenario); it also wipes your data completely.

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Yes, they are! When phones have kill switches, theft declines as a result. Apple has added a kill switch to devices in September 2013, and theft has dropped in the areas where the company’s market share is higher (San Fransisco, New York, and London). While the issue needs to be studied more closely, the kill switches installed by Apple are promising, and exemplary for other manufacturers.

To some people heavily involved in the tech space, it is somewhat surprising that the government actually wants to mandate kill switches on smartphones. Certain figures, like San Francisco DA George Gascon have championed laws to obligate manufacturers and carriers to install kill switches, citing the 40 percent drop in theft in his city from Apple’s decision in 2013. Some fear that this will allow the government to have more authority over the data autonomy of its citizens.

The proponents of “kill switch laws” are touting the benefits of such a thing, saying that it would curb theft significantly. This isn’t a lie, but are we ready to hand over the authority on what hardware or software is installed in our phones to the state?

You can technically install your own kill switch if you wish (for free) by downloading the software that allows you to do it. Android even has a device manager that you can use through your Google account that lets you achieve the same result.

What do you think? Should we side with the government and enforce a legal obligation for our phones to include kill switches? Tell us in a comment!

6 comments

  1. I don’t support the addition of kill switches in mobile devices. The problem, as I see it, is that the government can’t be trusted not to abuse it. I live in a third world nation, and while it is nominally a democracy, the elected public servants are not above abusing their authority to silence dissent or curtail freedoms.

    Not wanting an “Arab Spring”-type revolution, these entrenched plutocrats will definitely use it to kill the phones owned by the opposition, activists, revolutionaries, media, etc. They are using the pretext of phone theft as a subterfuge but their real intention is targeted censorship of political speech.

    • That is a very genuine perspective on the situation. Thanks for your input! I think that kill switches, if added at all, should not be mandated by the state, and should be controlled only by the user that installs it.

      • I would support an opt-in kill switch, but not one that is baked-in to the unit, which is what lawmakers want. I already use Android Device Manager as a sort of Lojack/Killswitch if I lose my phone. And back in 2005 you could “kill” a phone by submitting its IMEI to the carriers to block it. I don’t see why it won’t still work in 2015.

        • Dan, I completely agree. I, too, use Android DM. Regarding IMEI blocking, that’s simply not enough anymore. If your phone is blocked by IMEI, that means it can no longer authenticate into the local carrier network, but it doesn’t mean that the thief cannot use Wi-Fi.

          Also, I think hardware kill switches are more viable. A savvy thief can bypass Android Device Manager’s lock (I can do it in a heartbeat on most devices, but that’s neither here nor there). Hardware-based locking mechanisms would make it impossible to reinstall the OS, and nearly impossible to bypass. I think some manufacturers could include this in some of their models, should any consumer desire to have a phone with this nature of security. Ultimately, I am still against obligating all manufacturers to include hardware switches.

  2. Does the government’s successful mandating of “kill switch” technology set a legal precedent that allows them to mandate backdoors?

    • Indeed, it is a possibility. I decided not to explore the subject too much since that’s very uncertain territory and the best we could come up with is speculation, unless such a thing would be proposed in the future.

Comments are closed.

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