US Senators Want Mandatory Kill Switch for Cell Phones

By Conan Milner, Epoch Times
February 18, 2014 Updated: February 18, 2014

A group of U.S. Senators want remote deactivation systems installed on all mobile devices. Their bill addresses an epidemic of stolen cell phones, but the industry contends that the requirement will bring other problems.

On Feb. 13, Sens. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.), Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), and Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii) introduced the Smartphone Theft Prevention Act. The legislation aims to deter theft by remotely deactivating stolen devices via text message.

With high resale value and a potential treasure trove of personal information, smartphones and tablets are ripe for theft. 

According to Consumer Reports, 1.6 million Americans had their smartphones stolen in 2012. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) estimates that between 30 to 40 percent of U.S. street theft involves a mobile device. 

Major cities are home to the highest concentrations of cell phone theft, and officials in New York and California have been pushing for a cellphone kill switch in those states since April 2012. According to New York State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, the Senate proposal would force the mobile industry to “stop dragging its feet and join us in protecting consumers.”

“For the past eight months, the Secure Our Smartphone Initiative has been challenging carriers and manufacturers to install technology to end the epidemic of violent smartphone thefts plaguing our communities,” Schneiderman said in a statement.

Risk of Retaliation

Companies such as Apple and Samsung promise to unveil their own anti-theft strategies soon, and other smartphones already feature a kill switch application, but the industry opposes a rule. CTIA-The Wireless Association, an industry trade group representative, argues that even if developing a permanent deactivation system were technically feasible, the concept has “very serious risks.”

“This could be used to disable entire groups of customers, such as Department of Defense, Homeland Security or emergency services/law enforcement,” wrote CTIA in a statement. “This could be used to disable random customers as retaliation by a variety of persons or entities.”

On Feb. 7, San Francisco District Attorney George Gascón introduced a kill switch bill in California with Sen. Mark Leno (D-Calif.). SB 962 requires all mobile devices sold in the state to come pre-equipped with a “theft-deterrent solution” by Jan. 1, 2015. 

According to a statement from Gascón, device manufacturers and wireless carriers reject the kill switch idea because “the industry is profiting at the expense and safety of wireless consumers everywhere.”

Consumers spend $30 billion a year replacing smartphones and tablets, according to an FCC study. Gascón said that the nation’s four largest carriers make an estimated $7.8 billion on theft and loss insurance.

Follow Conan on Twitter: @ConanMilner