I don't think a "kill switch" is the answer to increased phone thefts

Anna Scantlin
Contributing Editor from Kansas City, MO
Published: June 13, 2013

Phones are scary. Yes, these little computer-like devices that we use to communicate to one another with are scary. Why? Because a lot of people in this world don’t see smartphones as just a convenient way to send texts to your buddy in the next town over, or to FaceTime your daughter while she’s away at college; they see them as an easy way to make a quick buck as long as they can distract you long enough to steal it away from you.

It’s a scary thought knowing that there are people in the world that are just hanging around town waiting for the opportune moment to steal these devices that contain so much of our personal information. It’s even scarier when it actually happens to you and somewhere in the world there is somebody who may know a lot more about you than you might want them to know – but likely just wants to sell your shiny piece of expensive equipment to somebody for fast cash. Either way, it's just a nerve-racking thought.

But theft is a natural part of life that we risk no matter what type of stuff we have – expensive or not. But when it comes to our smartphones, some think that the technology used in them could actually give us an advantage to stopping the thieves from ever wanting to steal the phones in the first place. There is a new initiative forming; the purpose of it is to try and stop the rise of phone thefts by implementing a “kill switch” feature in stolen phones, rendering the stolen phones useless.

According to a news report today from CNet, New York General Attorney Eric Shneiderman and San Francisco District Attorney George Gascon held a press conference today to try and urge manufacturers and consumers to push for this kill switch technology in smartphones by next year. The officials reportedly call the program “Secure Our Smartphones”.

While I would never argue that smartphones are indeed becoming a prime target for thefts during robberies, I’m not sure that I feel entirely comfortable with a “kill switch” idea once my phone becomes stolen.

My first thought was that this kill switch could be a gold mine for carriers – a huge amount of income is generated every year from people who have had lost or stolen devices (especially if no insurance covering such inconveniences was ever added). By adding a kill switch, the phone presumably becomes unusable. Should the user report the phone as “stolen” and it actually just ends up just falling between the seats in your car, would the owner be SOL? Would the phone be rendered useless regardless? My hope is that, if this comes to fruition, carriers will be able to unbrick the phone as well once the owner can prove that they’re truly who they say they are.

But even that doesn’t cover all of the bases. Many shady businesses still operate in such a way that they’ll take any type of phone, bricked or not, and trade it in for a monetary value. I would be willing to bet that these types of businesses would only benefit from the influx of bricked devices that would flood in should this act take effect, and would likely not slow down phone thefts.

Another major question to ask is this: Would the kill switch be a mandatory requirement to own the phone, or would be an opt-in service? By not creating an opt-in service, felons have a 50/50 chance of scoring a device that decided not to opt-in, therefore also likely not slowing down the amount of phone thefts today. However, by making it mandatory the result could be that people see this as a ploy for carriers to have more control over their devices than necessary.

Security is an important feature to have in our smartphones – we know that. But the security methods on our phones are primarily put in place to help keep our information safe from outside eyes. This new method seems like it’s primarily used to keep people safer from robberies – but it should be noted that many robberies only include the theft of a phone, not that it was the only thing stolen. While there are still isolated incidents where yes, the phone is the only thing stolen, I have a bad feeling that there is no foolproof way to ensure that thieves do not commit robberies. If it’s not for one thing, it will be for another. I don’t think the kill switch is the solution we’re looking for.

But that’s just my take on this whole ordeal. Now it’s your turn, readers: What is your opinion on the Save Our Smartphones initiative? Would you be interested in participating in the program? Share your thoughts about it with me in the comments below!

Images via CNet, Life Hacker