Wireless Industry Rebuffs Notion of Smartphone “Kill Switch”

by Matt Klassen on November 28, 2013

The idea of installing a ‘kill switch’ in smartphones is causing quite a stir, as government and law enforcement agencies face off with the wireless industry. Spearheaded by a district attorney in San Francisco and an attorney general in New York, the proposition would see firmware added to smartphones that would allows consumers to ‘brick,’ or render unusable, a mobile device that’s been lost or stolen.

While the idea is gaining traction among mobile manufacturers like Samsung, it’s the wireless carriers who continue to resist the proposal. Of course one doesn’t have to look far to see a possible reason for the carriers’ combined reticence, as the industry makes good money off customers having to buy insurance plans to cover replacement devices, not to mention their less than stellar reputations for preventing stolen devices from being reactivated and used by others.

But carriers are offering a much more benevolent reason for balking the notion of ‘kill switches,’ they’re fundamentally unsafe and could result in greater privacy breaches as hackers use them to restrict owner access.

Smartphone theft is a multi-billion dollar global criminal enterprise, and law enforcement agencies are searching for ways to curb the ever-growing industry. In fact, almost 1 in 3 robberies committed in the United States involves phone theft.

To that end, the notion of installing a kill-switch has become the idea de jure, designed as a way to curb cellphone theft by discouraging the thieves themselves: if the phone doesn’t work, why steal it? The proposal would see all smartphones comes preloaded with Absolute Low Jack, a firmware feature that would allow users to remotely deactivate a phone if it was stolen.

But as carriers explain, “a kill switch isn’t the answer because it could allow a hacker to disable someone’s phone.” A problem, the wireless industry explains, could lead to more disastrous information loss, security breaches, and privacy intrusion.

According to San Francisco District Attorney George Gascon major American carriers AT&T Inc., Verizon Wireless, United States Cellular Corp., Sprint Corp. and T-Mobile US Inc have all used this argument to rebuff the plan, but Gascon says the true motive for carriers to resist the ‘kill switch’ is not hard to find: its all about money.

Referring to email communication he has received from the wireless industry, Gascon noted that the emails “suggest that the carriers are concerned that the software would eat into the profit they make from the insurance programs many consumers buy to cover lost or stolen phones.” Simply put, lost or stolen phones are big business for wireless carriers, and they don’t want to close off a lucrative revenue stream, not even if it means increased privacy protection for their customers.

In response the wireless industry has pointed to the national cellphone database, meant to record lost or stolen cellphones so that carriers could deactivate them if thieves try to use them again. But alas, as law enforcement states, the database has done little to deter thieves, as the phones are simply shipped overseas for deployment outside the purview of the database.

In the end, I have to agree with Gascon’s assessment, that “Corporate profits cannot be allowed to guide decisions that have life-or-death consequences,” to which he added, “This solution has the potential to safeguard Samsung customers, but these emails suggest the carriers rejected it so they can continue to make money hand over fist on insurance premiums.”

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Written by: Matt Klassen. www.digitcom.ca. Follow TheTelecomBlog.com by: RSS, Twitter, Facebook, or YouTube.

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