Getting a head start on supporting the program designed by CTIA, The Wireless Association, Minnesota has passed a law requiring all new cell phone devices to have a kill switch system build in, to help prevent the theft of cell phones. This is the first state to pass this law, and Governor Mark Dayton hopes that this will lead to a reduction in cell phone related crime in the state.
Cell phone theft has continued to grow as a problem for Americans, and 3.1 million smartphones were stolen in 2013. Of these 3.1 million smartphone users, 45% (or almost 1.4 million) never retrieved their phone. Separate studies have had results of up to 68% of users never getting their phones back. Proponents of the law assert that this will deter criminals from targeting smartphone users, and end the escalating number of violent crimes that have been associated with the devices. One example of the violent nature of these crimes is that of Mark Andrew, a candidate for the Minneapolis, Minnesota mayoral position. While at a Starbucks, Andrew had his phone stolen, and was beaten upon attempting to retrieve it. He was taken to the hospital and needed to be given nine stitches after the incident.
How a Kill Switch Works
There are two types of kill switches that are being discussed for implementation with this law. The first is a “hard” switch, which completely wipes the phone, and permanently renders it useless to anyone, even the original owner. This essentially turns the device into a luxury paperweight, and any information that is on the phone is gone forever. A “soft” switch would have the same initial effect of deleting all data and making the phone unusable, but allows an option for the owner of the phone to restore their information if they recover it. CTIA is in favor of the “soft” option, as it is more beneficial for owners, and because a hacking attempt on the device would not prove to be as damaging. The Minnesota law, however, does not specify which type of kill switch is to be used to prevent the theft of citizens’ cell phones.
Drawbacks to Kill Switches
Despite the proposed benefits of kill switches, some experts are pointing out problems that may occur with their design and implementation. The first issue is whether or not the idea of a kill switch is even feasible. With the complexity of technology today, there are ways to install new operating systems onto completely wiped phones, so the only true way to permanently disable a device is to cause physical damage to the circuitry inside. Another potential disaster that has been mentioned is misuse or abuse of the kill signal, which hackers could use to disable the phones of other people. While the “soft” kill switches do not have all of these same drawbacks, hackers could figure out how to reverse disabled devices for use or sale. The Minnesota law does not address the specifics of how these kill switches will work, instead leaving this decision up to the cell phone manufacturers and CTIA. This open room for interpretation is flexible because the workings of a functional kill switch have not yet been fully designed or proven.
Minnesota is the first of the 50 United States that has decided to take the step towards preventing cell phone theft, and California is in the process of signing their own law towards this measure as well. Many cell phone manufacturers, such as Apple and HTC, have stated that they are on board for this bill as well, meaning that a widespread push for this effort is in the works, as long as the method of implementing a kill switch feature can be designed.
By Joseph Chisarick