Mobile carriers have long pushed back on law enforcement, and customer, requests to provide a “kill switch” on their devices. A kill switch can come in various forms, but is intended to disable phones when stolen, making them less attractive to thieves by eliminating their resale value. With mobile phone theft making up a high percentage, 30-40%, of all robberies in the US the problem is very real. But carriers have been accused of refusing to provide such a feature, due to the perception that they benefit from stolen phones in two ways. First, the previous owner now has to buy a new phone, often at sky high “out of contract” rates. And secondly, the stolen phone is often activated by the new owner, gaining the carrier a new customer.
Cell phone manufacturers have used various excuses over time to drag their feet on this. They complain that the technology is too expensive to implement. Or they note the fact that the phone – once recovered – would be dead and the customer would be unable to use it anyway. That one doesn’t fly very far however, as Apple already offers a way to lock a phone, and then unlock it with the proper username and passcode upon recovery. So a non lethal solution, so to speak, could be created. Another objection uses the threat of hackers that could activate the “kill switch” thus disabling phones at will, wreaking havoc on users’ lives.
But however hard carriers resist, they may being getting pushed into it anyway. California’s legislature has brought forward a bill to require a kill switch on any cell phone sold in the state. The bill, introduced by State Sen. Mark Leno (D-San Francisco) and sponsored by San Francisco Attorney General George Gascón, would apply to any device sold after Jan. 1, 2015. The requirement also comes with a hammer – a $2,500 fine per device for anythings sold without the kill switch.
With California being such a huge market, both in volume and revenue, this isn’t something they can simply ignore. And if passed, most presume it would cause carriers to alter all their devices, as it would not be cost effective to manufacture a different model just for California. Time will tell if this causes a sea change in the mobile security market, but it bears watching. Business IT and telecom managers would rest easier knowing this option was available for devices that may have access to internal networks and data. Especially if it is a “recoverable” solution that doesn’t kill the phone completely, keeping both the employee happy, and cutting the expense of having to replace the device.