Smartphone security: To ‘kill’ or not?

The installation of a “kill switch” in mobile devices to deter theft, first proposed by California legislators, now has the attention of federal lawmakers.

lockedphone_artFour U.S. senators introduced legislation to require carriers to install a security feature on smartphones that would remotely and permanently disable the devices if stolen. The legislation follows California’s first-in-the-nation bid to make the so-called “kill switch” mandatory on all mobile devices, including tablets.

Theft is a serious problem confronting owners of mobile devices. In major cities like New York and San Francisco, smartphone theft accounts for half of all robberies. There’s even an informal and diabolical name for it: “Apple picking.” U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, one of the bill’s sponsors, estimates the cost of these thefts to consumers is more than $30 billion a year.

The idea is for the disabling technology to be an effective deterrent by making the smartphones worthless to thieves.

But not everyone is on board. The wireless trade group CTIA has come out against the federal legislation in a position paper, citing potential hacking and privacy risks that could affect entire groups of smartphone customers. A lost smartphone reported stolen could cost the consumer hundreds of dollars to replace it, the CTIA says. The group does support criminal penalties for tampering with a smartphone.

“There is a far better way to do this, but it would actually require that criminals are captured, smartphones are returned to the owners, and justice is served,’s John Dvorak writes in panning the federal legislation. “It also means providers and police have to do more than sit around hitting a kill switch and having a doughnut.”

This recent CNET article goes into depth about the security devices already employed in most smartphones, and what the wireless industry is doing — and not doing — to deter thieves.