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10 things to know about the smartphone kill switch

Martyn Williams | June 25, 2014
Apple already has one, Microsoft and Google say they'll build one, Minnesota will demand it from next year and it could soon be the law in California and maybe nationwide. The smartphone kill switch appears to be on its way to every handset sold in the U.S. so what's all the fuss about? Here's a look at the main points of the technology.

Do I have to have it on my phone?

No. Minnesota's law says it should be installed or available for download. California is mandating the software be on new phones but users will have the ability to disable the feature, but it must be enabled by default. By having it opt-out rather than opt-in, law enforcement believes many more people will leave it switched on and so the chance that any given smartphone will be protected will be much higher.

The deterrent aspect of the kill switch relies on this numbers game: If a phone is likely to have the software, thieves have less incentive to steal it. If it likely doesn't, the chance it will be stolen goes up — or at least that's the theory.

What about Find My iPhone or Google's Android locator?

Built-in tracking services can help locate a phone and wipe its memory if the phone remains online, but all too often thieves switch off a stolen phone and reinstall the operating system. That wipes all personal information on the phone and your link to it. California's proposed law says the kill-switch software must be resistant to such OS reinstalls.

What's the industry doing?

For a long time, the telecoms industry was against the idea of a kill switch. Speaking through its lobbying organization, the CTIA, the industry said a kill switch would make phones vulnerable to hacking. But earlier this year, as legislation looked more and more likely, that stance changed and the CTIA now supports a kill switch.

But the industry is hoping to avoid legislation and make it a voluntary commitment. Previously, it launched a database of stolen phones that could be used to prevent them from being reused with new accounts. However, the database has limited reach outside of the U.S. and many stolen phones are sent overseas.

Will it work?

It's too early to tell, although some early data from New York, London and San Francisco showed significant drops in thefts of iPhones after Apple launched its kill switch. However, the causes of crime are complex and it's much too early to draw a direct link.

But it's safe to say a kill switch won't do anything to encourage smartphone theft.

So, can the government kill my smartphone?

California's proposed law is the only one that specifically addresses this issue. It allows police access to the tool but under the conditions of the existing section 7908 of the California Public Utilities Code. That gives police the ability to cut off phone service in certain situations.

A court order is typically required, although an exception is made in an emergency that poses "immediate danger of death or great bodily injury."

 

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