Lawmakers push for phone kill switches
Updated 7:04 pm, Wednesday, March 26, 2014
Last summer, Taylor Wilson was at a pool party with friends in his hometown of New Canaan when he became a victim of an increasingly common crime: His phone was stolen.
Wilson, a college student who was home for summer break, said he's not sure who took the phone. He and his friends left their belongings unattended for just a few minutes and people he didn't know came into the party. When he checked his things, his white iPhone 4s was gone.
Wilson tried to use a tracking app installed on the phone to locate it, but the phone was turned off. He reported the stolen phone to local police. He also contacted his wireless company, AT&T, which said they'd be able to disable the phone and secure its contents.
But with cell phone thefts like Wilson's on the rise in cities across the nation, federal lawmakers say that tracking apps aren't a strong enough defense. They say cell phones and smartphones need to have a mechanism to render them completely inert if they are stolen -- a device that advocates are calling a "kill switch."
More InformationPercentages of robberies in which a cell phone is taken
Bridgeport: 33 percent
National Average: 33 percent
Washington D.C.: 38 percent
New York City: More than 40 percent
San Francisco: 50 percent
Sources: Bridgeport Police Department, the Federal Communications Commission and the National Consumers League
Federal legislation moving through the U.S. Senate would require new cell phones and smartphones to have a device that would allow a phone's true owner to lock or delete all of the information from the phone. Similar legislation was introduced in the U.S. House earlier this month.
Wilson said he lost some photos in the theft, but not any irreplaceable personal information. Still, he said, he thinks adding kill switches to phones would be a good idea.
"Not only would it protect people's information, but it might discourage people from stealing them, knowing that this technology exists and they can't really do anything with it once it's stolen," he said.
The bills would also require that the phone be made unusable on any cell network -- even if the internal storage device is removed -- unless the phone's true owner enters a password.
"These phones often contain the keys to the kingdom," said U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., who is one of the main supporters of the Senate legislation. "Personal information about loved ones and friends, personal financial information and personal data creates a mother lode for identity thieves."
The kill switch legislation is also backed by the Secure Our Smartphones Initiative, a coalition led by New York State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman and San Francisco District Attorney George Gascón.
The goal of the kill switch isn't just to prevent cellphone thefts -- which cost consumers an estimated $30 billion per year -- but also to discourage robbers who are holding people up specifically to get their phones.
Advocates say that if robbers knew the cellphones could quickly be rendered useless, they'd be less likely to target phone owners for theft.
Bridgeport police say that a cellphone is taken in one-third of the city's robberies, and in other major cities around the country, the numbers are even higher. Authorities in San Francisco estimate that a smartphone is taken in half of all street robberies there.
Bridgeport Police Chief Joseph L. Gaudett Jr. said that he's supportive of the kill switch as a way to deter robberies, which can potentially become violent crimes.
"Obviously, there is a lucrative underground market for these phones, both here and internationally," Gaudett said. "If a remote kill switch could render a phone useless -- and valueless -- that could have a huge impact."
But while kill switches are still in development, the Bridgeport Police Department has stepped up its efforts to encourage people to be more careful with their phones.
The design of a cellphone kill switch is still in the works, and the idea faces stiff opposition from the cellphone industry itself.
The CTIA, the main lobbying group for wireless companies in Washington, said that kill switches could be expensive to develop, and it says hackers could potentially use a kill switch to disable large groups of phones, like those of an entire company or government agency.
The CTIA refused to be interviewed for this story.
"We encourage consumers to use currently available apps and features that remotely wipe, track and lock their devices in case they are lost or stolen," said Michael Altschul, the CTIA's senior vice president and general counsel, in a prepared statement. "And our members are continuing to explore and offer new technologies to address these crimes while not inadvertently creating a `trap door' that hackers and cybercriminals could exploit."
Wireless companies made a voluntary agreement among themselves in 2012 that the CTIA says will help to curb cellphone theft.
The companies said they would develop a database by the end of last year that would blacklist any phone that is reported stolen and make it difficult for thieves to reactivate the phone U.S. networks. The industry group says it supports another piece of federal legislation that would make it a crime to modify a phone to get around the blacklisting.
They also agree to educate consumers about how to lock their phone with a password and how to remotely wipe data and track their phone if it is stolen.
But advocates like Blumenthal and Secure Our Smartphones say that modifying a phone to get around the database blacklist is fairly easy, and that sophisticated criminals are unlikely to care about tougher legal penalties for doing so.
And while many newer smartphones come with some kind of tracking software pre-installed, the industry's agreement doesn't require that a tracking app be included with the phone. Many such apps are available for download on all of the major platforms, but only a few of those apps are free.
Blumenthal and others say there needs to be a mechanism on every phone so that customers can protect their data quickly after a theft.
"Most consumers who become victims of identity theft are very significantly harmed in lasting and irreparable ways," Blumenthal said. "Very simply, the best way to protect the consumers is to prevent the identity theft by disabling the phones."