Should Congress order kill switches on cellphones to cut theft?

It can hardly be a surprise to cellphone companies that the theft of cellphones is a significant problem. Nearly one out of every three robberies involves the theft of a cellphone, the FCC reports.

Last week’s beating of a Minneapolis politician over a cellphone, and the assaults on students at the University of Minnesota only underscores the seriousness of the problem.

But the cellphone companies haven’t adopted a kill-switch feature, allowing a victim to render the stolen cellphone useless and minimize their attraction.

They’re not far from having to answer to Congress on the issue.

“Identifying ways to curb mobile device theft is a top priority of mine and I will continue to advocate for the American wireless consumer,” Sen. Amy Klobuchar said today in a letter to all five major cellphone carriers. “I also believe additional action to protect wireless consumers is necessary and that’s why I am asking you for this information. The status quo is not acceptable.”

Klobuchar joins a chorus of politicians pressuring the companies to provide the kill-switch feature. A California politician is proposing the first state law mandating the switches.

Why aren’t the cellphone companies moving on this? The San Francisco district attorney says they make too much money on insurance plans they sell to customers, according to Time.com:

… his office reviewed emails sent from Samsung to a third-party, in which the phone manufacturer said that carriers were hesitant to make a kill-switch standard on phones because it competed with their lucrative insurance products, a $7 billion market by one estimate. “The carriers are actually becoming a wall here,” (DA George) Gascón says. “And it appears that this is pretty profit motivated.”

A kill switch could be something like an app that comes preloaded on a phone and allows users to go online and shut down the phone themselves, so that the gadget would never operate again in the absence of a user’s security codes. Leno says those details will be fleshed out in conversations with manufacturers and law enforcement in the new year, when similar legislation may be introduced in New York. “The intent is to make use of technology to make this kind of crime of little value to those who are involved,” he says.

But a wireless trade group says installing a kill switch in every phone makes it more likely it could be used to disable multiple phones, creating a security flaw, USA Today reported:

This could be used to disable entire groups of customers, such as the Department of Defense, the Department of Homeland Security or emergency services/law enforcement.

This could be used to disable random customers as retaliation by a variety of persons or entities.

Where mobile devices are permanently disabled by malicious use of a “kill switch,” the safety of subscribers may be jeopardized as they will be unable to make emergency calls.

Last year the FCC unveiled initiatives to cut cellphone use, including tips to consumers that now seem quite inadequate:

Consider your surroundings and use your device discreetly at locations in which you feel unsafe.
Never leave your device unattended in a public place. Don’t leave it visible in an unattended car; lock it up in the glove compartment or trunk.

Write down the device’s make, model number, serial number and unique device identification number (either the International Mobile Equipment Identifier (IMEI) or the Mobile Equipment Identifier (MEID) number). The police may need this informattion if the device is stolen or lost.

Review your warranty or service agreement to find out what will happen if your phone is stolen or lost. If the policy is not satisfactory, you may wish to consider buying device insurance.

As the Andrew beating pointed out, they left off “don’t use your device in a public place, in the middle of the day, with lots of people around.”

  • Matt

    I would call the FCC’s recommendations quaint. “Ah look, Bob, they tried so hard. Gee-wiz, aw-schucks, etc.”

  • John Peschken

    Once again, profit trumps the Right Thing to Do.
    Back in the ’80’s I remember a lot a talk about Corporate Ethics. I wonder whatever happened to that quaint notion. Outmoded, right along with Hammer Pants, perms for men, and Zubaz I guess.