CA just passed a bill requiring all new smartphones, made after July 1, 2015 and sold in the State, to have a function (“kill switch”) that allows the user to lock the phone, delete data, and prevent a reinstallation of the phones operating system, in case the phone is stolen.
The idea is to convince thieves that stealing a cellphone will be useless, since the stolen phone will no longer work due to the kill switch.
The one set of problems
The kill switch must be built into the phone, but the consumer can turn off the feature (or perhaps not turn the feature on in the first place). Also, until nearly all cell phones have such a feature, thieves will not mind stealing the phone to find out if it has a kill switch or not. If you steal enough phones, some will not have the feature, or not have it turned on. So it is unlikely to have the desired deterrent effect. Then again, it’s very likely that any kill switch design will be able to be circumvented by “rooting” the phone. Even if it can’t be circumvented, thieves can always sell the non-working phone online, and make money that way. It’s an unworkable approach.
The other set of problems
Police can also use the tool, but only 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 and typically requires a court order, except in an emergency that poses “immediate danger of death or great bodily injury.”
Well, that ability will never be misused by government or police. We can totally trust them to use good judgment and not cut off everyone’s cell phone use due to a perceived emergency. [he said sarcastically]
This bill essentially gives the government control over everyone’s cell phone. They can lock out cell phones, delete data, and prevent the OS from being reinstalled. If some terrorist sets off a bomb with a cell phone, the government or police could decide to shut down everyone’s phone, in the interest of public safety. Some teenage miscreant could call in a fake bomb threat, claiming that the bomb would be set off by cell phone, and everyone’s phone could be shut off by the gov’t as a result. Not a good plan, people. Why don’t legislators think things through?
Now you might object to this scenario, for a few reasons. First, the bill only applies to CA. Sure, but the cellphone market in CA is so large, phone makers will find it cheaper and simpler to put this capability in all smartphones. And if a few more States adopt similar bills, the economic pressure to put the kill switch in all phones will result in the CA law affecting millions of persons who don’t live in CA.
Second, the bill seems to allow the consumer to disable the feature. Yes, but it’s a very short step to amend this law making the feature mandatory, with no way to turn it off. They could even make it illegal to shut off the feature. Rooted smartphones would become illegal. And on the basis of a claim that this feature fights terrorism, it could become highly illegal not to have this feature on a phone.
Oh, and what do you think the NSA is going to do with this capability? It’s a doorway into all smartphones. There’s no way they are not hard at work, right now, figuring out how to exploit this feature to do whatever they want with your phone and its data.
So this bill does nothing to fight cellphone theft. All it does is take one giant step toward the government controlling your cellphone. The more power you give to government and police, the greater the potential for misuse. The only good government is limited government.