U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar says she's planning to introduce legislation in the next few weeks that would require so-called kill switches in smartphones. The DFLer says the ability to remotely disable a stolen phone would both deter theft and help protect users' data.
The measure has the support of law enforcement -- especially at the University of Minnesota -- where there's been an uptick in smartphone theft. But critics say such technology won't work -- and could have some bad consequences.
Billy Black is a U of M senior who says he might benefit from a kill switch law -- he's had a bad run of luck with cell phones lately. Last summer, he left one outside a friend's apartment. It was long gone by the time he returned. A few weeks later, Black says he was at a party near campus. As things were winding down, he set smartphone number two on a table by the couch and crashed for the night. He woke up to find his iPhone had gone home with someone else. Black says he dialed his number, but got nowhere.
"[They] never answered any of the calls when I called them, and eventually just turned it off or something," he said.
Black says the two lost iPhones set him back more than $300. And with his carrier not willing to track the devices, or give him a break on his contract, he's now doing the technological equivalent of couch surfing. From a borrowed Android phone, Black says Klobuchar may be onto something with her idea for a mandatory cell phone kill switch.
“The government wouldn't be shutting off the phone. It's giving the individual the ability to shut off the phone.”Sen. Amy Klobuchar
"Given my history, it doesn't seem like a bad idea to mandate something like that," he said. "I don't see much of a downside to it. I can see how people might claim that it's an invasion of privacy or something like that, but if they use any sort of app or really use your phone period, I feel like they can figure out where you are."
Klobuchar gave an overview of her proposed legislation at a news conference yesterday at the U. While many details have yet to be worked out, Klobuchar insisted her bill is not meant to expand government snooping. Nor will it -- she says -- because authorities won't have the ability to target individual users.
"The government wouldn't be shutting off the phone. It's giving the individual the ability to shut off the phone, just as a lot of the iPhones have right now. That's all it's doing. It's not saying the government will shut down the phone. It's saying that the individual owner can shut down the phone," she said.
Apple iPhones running the latest operating system, iOS 7, can be remotely disabled the device as long as users set up its Find my iPhone app ahead of time. But with other smartphone brands growing in popularity, Klobuchar says the kill switch needs to be more widely available.
Minneapolis Police Chief Janee Harteau agrees. She says a cell phone is taken in one out of of every three armed robberies -- a statistic that was borne out on and near the University of Minnesota campus last fall. That part of the city saw a 27 percent uptick in robberies over the five year average. Harteau says police can only provide part of the solution.
"We're going to continue to do enforcement, we're going to continue to educate, but to really have an impact on public safety, this has to be a collaborative effort. And we need the manufacturers and the cell phone companies to be at the table," Harteau said.
The cell phone industry says it's doing its part to combat theft. A lobbying group called CTIA-The Wireless Association says it's already setting up databases of stolen phones so carriers can prevent those phones from being reactivated.
Kill switch supporters say that won't stop overseas buyers from reactivating the phones. But CTIA opposes mandatory kill switches, favoring a different approach: "Multifaceted approach of databases, technology, consumer education, legislation and international partnerships to remove the aftermarket for stolen phones."
These 3G and 4G/LTE databases, which blacklist stolen phones and prevent them from being reactivated, are part of the solution. Yet we need more international carriers and countries to participate to help remove the aftermarket abroad for these trafficked devices. 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, 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. We also support Senator Schumer's legislation that would impose tough penalties on those who steal devices or illegally modify the unique device identifiers since it would help dry up the market for those who traffic in stolen devices.
CTIA also says kill switch technology could easily be exploited .
Anton Schieffer, who works at a computer forensics company in Minneapolis and writes about tech issues, says black hat hackers could spoof a kill switch signal and wipe out a lot of phones with just the click of a mouse.
"I feel with a lot of legislation regarding cell phones, legislators are usually well-intentioned, but sometimes these bills can have unintended consequences. And I think that's the case in this scenario," he said.
Schieffer says kill switches could also put the brakes on the legitimate market for used cell phones, if buyers fear that their devices could be disabled by a previous owner. Schieffer's advice for avoiding theft: Pay attention to your surroundings when you're using your phone and don't get too wrapped up in that game of Candy Crush.