Crusade for smartphone 'kill switch' heats up, but would it work?

Law enforcement officials are pushing smartphone manufacturers to develop a kill switch to disable stolen phones. They see it as a way to stem rampant smartphone theft.

Bebeto Matthews/AP
San Francisco District Attorney George Gascon speaks Thursday in New York at the launch of the 'Secure Our Smartphones' initiative, which is aimed at encouraging the cellphone industry to adapt technology to deter cellphone theft.

The crusade to force smartphone manufacturers to put a "kill switch" on their devices began in earnest Thursday.

A coalition of public prosecutors, police, consumer advocates, and politicians from more than a dozen states announced the creation of SOS – Secure Our Smartphones – which is aimed at stamping out what officials called an “epidemic” of smartphone robberies. Citing statistics that 1 on 3 robberies nationwide involves a cellphone theft, they said a kill switch on smartphones – essentially rendering it useless – would eliminate the incentive for would-be thieves.

But industry watchers say SOS will not be enough to motivate the smartphone industry, which has so far decided against introducing such technology. Moreover, others worry about the pitfalls such technology might create, such as the possibility of smartphones being "killed" by accident.

“There is no question that something needs to be done,” says Peter LaMotte, a digital communications expert at Levick, a public relations firm. But to get the industry to respond, “there has to be a huge public outcry, and one news conference is not a huge outcry.”

The press conference Thursday preceded a “Smartphone Summit” with representatives from top smartphone manufactures such as Microsoft, Google, Apple, and Samsung. "The industry has a moral and social obligation to fix this problem,” said San Francisco District Attorney George Gascon.

The kill switch capability already exists, say software industry analysts. It would work by identifying a specific phone that has been stolen and then shutting it down. For the such a program to work, though, all the providers would have to be on board, otherwise a thief could just switch carriers to use the phone.

The key is "sharing reported stolen phone identifiers and blocking all identifiers – not just the ones reported by its own customers,” says Rob D’Ovidio an associate professor of criminal justice at Drexel University in Philadelphia.

If it worked, a kill switch might help mitigate some of the demand for stolen phones, but it’s not going to change the black-market demand for stolen phones, says Ken Westin, founder of Gadget Trak. “Even if the switch is implemented, there are ways around it. Criminals with enough technical knowledge, or those dedicated enough, it will essentially view it as a speed bump.”

For those who steal smartphones for the corporate or personal data on them, the kill switch would be irrelevant, adds Adam Ely, co-founder of Bluebox Security.

Consumers could also run into troubles if the phone company makes a mistake, says Joel Jacobsen, assistant attorney general of the criminal appeals division for New Mexico.

“We can be absolutely confident that mistakes will happen, because any human operation involving millions of decisions can't avoid mistakes," he says. "What do you do when your only phone has been remotely killed?"

"Another concern is whether the power to flip the kill switch is reserved to the customer or controlled by the phone company," he adds. "That's very important.”

Once a company has the power to flip that kind of switch, it will have to decide how to exercise it. “That will mean developing rules ... that won't necessarily coincide with the customer's wishes," he says. "Flipping the switch will cost the provider next to nothing, at least in the short term. But the cost to the customer in terms of time, hassle, and lost productivity would be enormous. That kind of imbalance – when one party has the power but the other bears the cost – always spells trouble.”

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