Should carriers activate the kill switch?
Phone theft is becoming more of a problem now than it ever has been. With phones being as expensive as they are, it comes as no surprise that they are significantly targeted during muggings. Used cell phones are so easy to come by, especially through websites that specialize in local ads such as Craigslist. The buyers who don't bother to check whether a phone's serial number is clean makes a phone thief's day. Unfortunately, for every one happy phone thief there is usually two unhappy people as a result. But what can you do? Things get stolen, and unfortunately there is no certainty that your life is safe should you decide to fight back for what's rightfully yours.
The worst part with smartphones is that they can still be used, even if you report them stolen with your carrier. The phones can still connect to WiFi, and can even be activated on alternative networks. Reporting them stolen to your carrier just means that nobody can use minutes or texts from your phone on your account anymore - it doesn't guarantee the safe return of your device. Once you get your phone stolen it's pretty much a hopeless case. At least, for now it is.
There is a movement on the horizon that's trying to make it so that phones are less of a target during muggings. Carriers are being encouraged to activate what's called a "kill switch" that pretty much renders the phone completely unusable. While the people behind the kill switch initiative, known as Secure Our Smartphones (S.O.S.) might not be able to make it apparent from the get-go that something like a kill switch would end up stopping thieves from stealing smartphones, after a few years of stealing phones that can't even do so much as turn on it might deter them from even wanting to steal a smartphone in the first place. But as it turns out, carriers aren't exactly interested in the kill switch right now. The suspicion is that carriers are concerned about "losing business". More specifically, insurance money.
Now, in my opinion I have always thought carrying insurance on a phone is important if the phone is important to you. Whether it's losing a device, having it stolen or breaking it, you sometimes just can't see those events from happening and it would be foolish to assume that it could never happen to you. It might not, but it certainly can. Since I've been able to get insurance on my phone, I have, and it's saved me at least three times that I can specifically remember. It doesn't sound like a lot compared to how much I've spent over the past 6 years on insurance alone, but the peace of mind that comes with having insurance has been worth it to me. I do realize that carriers are making a lot of money off of insurance, however, so I suppose I could also understand why the fear of losing insurance subscribers and thus losing profits would be somewhat concerning to them. But this is about the consumer for once, not the company, and you would think that if something like a kill switch really would help cut down on these potentially dangerous situations that somebody would want to go ahead and move forward with such an idea.
But as it seems, carriers are already working on a soluation to fix the phone theft issue. "All carriers are working on a multi-pronged approach to lower the number of phone thefts in the country," said Jamie Hastings, vice president of external and state affairs for CTIA. "One of the components of the efforts was to create an integrated database designed to prevent stolen phones from being reactivated," Hastings continued. "To assist users, we offer a list of apps to download that will remotely erase, track and/or lock the stolen devices."
So while perhaps a kill switch isn't an option that carriers are on board with, it seems that at least one of the issues (activating the device on another carrier using the same or similar network) would be addressed. But that doesn't sound like it will be able to stop people still being able to connect to WiFi, download applications and essentially still use it as a phone as long as there is Internet connection nearby. As for the small offering of being able to download specific applications that will erase, track or lock the device, it still won't prevent theft from happening because thieves don't know who has the apps and who doesn't. It doesn't matter if they can use the device or not - they're still being put in harm's way because there's a 50/50 chance that their phone doesn't have any security application on it.
On the other hand, there's still the fear that a kill switch might not be a good idea in the first place. To quote Kevin Mahaffey, chief technology officer at Lookout Mobile Security, brings up a good point by saying, "There are different risks associated with different technologies in order to solve a problem. There's no silver bullet or pixie dust to make it work."
Phone theft is admittedly becoming something very scary to deal with. Since some phones are worth so much money (even if you purchased them subsidized) they're pretty much treated as hunks of cash by thieves. It's clear that we need a solution in order to prevent this from becoming even more of a problem than it already is, but which way is the right way? Personally, I'm not fond of giving carriers the power to kill smartphones at the push of a button; I'm interested in seeing alternative solutions to the issue, and hopefully find some resolve to this growing issue.
Readers, what are your thoughts? Do you think that carriers should issue a kill switch, or do you think a different method of preventing theft would be more ideal? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below!