By May 12, 2014 0 Comments Read More →

Killing Theft: Senate’s Proposal to Disable Stolen Cell Phones

In a debate that shows us how much influence technology has over our society, lawmakers have begun discussing the possibility of mandating an added “kill switch” to cell phones. This switch would allow people to remotely disable their cell phone and wipe it of all personal data. Privacy has become a serious concern among many as technology continues to advance, (an issue recently highlighted through the recent revenge porn issue, which also caused the government to write new laws). Now, four Democratic senators have declared this issue serious enough that it’s time for change. So, what’s the plan, and how will it likely play out?

Protecting Privacy


Image via Flickr by Janitors

If nothing else, installing a kill switch in every manufactured cell phone will protect people’s privacy. As long as you know somebody has taken your phone before they get too deep into its contents, you can guarantee they never will by destroying it all. This can help stop victims from getting blackmailed, having bank or credit card information stolen, or even having their contacts’ information compromised.

Of course, the most common information theft is financial. But other privacy issues come up as well. Thieves can steal your identity or even destroy your online persona altogether, and it can be very difficult to bring them to justice within the confines of the law. All accounts, profiles, and business connections relying on the internet can disappear in a matter of minutes, and there’s not much users can do about it.

Discouraging Theft

Senators have proposed this bill primarily to discourage people from stealing cell phones. Most people who steal phones don’t concern themselves as much with the content on the phone (though some certainly do). They either want to use the device for themselves, or, even more often, sell it. Triggering a kill switch would greatly reduce the resale value of any phone; a black market industry that has exploded over recent years.

If you recently bought an iPhone from cell phone providers such as T-Mobile, you may have experienced their milder version of a “kill switch” with iOS 7. Apparently Apple has implemented an Activation Lock feature making it “impossible” to reactivate a stolen phone without the linked Apple ID and password.

A Big Business

Serious thieves make big bucks from stolen cell phones. The dirty business costs consumers over $30 billion dollars every year while simultaneously endangering the security of its victims. According to the FCC, almost one-third of all thefts involve cell phone theft. In major cities, that fraction goes up. Both New York City and San Francisco have reported more than half of all robberies involving cell phones. In fact, it’s so common that they now refer to cell phone theft as “Apple Picking.” In Oakland, it’s estimated that 75 percent of robberies involve cell phones.

Trends show that smartphones should only continue to become ubiquitous. According to, 1 billion smartphones shipped out in 2013. This an increasing number of people people have cell phones, meaning more available victims for thieves in the cell phone taking business. If the nature of the market doesn’t change in some way, theft will continue to rise.

The Debate

Not everybody agrees that installing a kill-switch would benefit consumers and stop thieves. In fact, the technology could lead to further abuse of smartphones. Technology laws have many gray areas and, due to the nature of the subject, investigators tend to have a hard time covering all intended areas. The senate proposed the law to help protect the consumer, but if the consumer doesn’t have complete control over the situation, are they really protected?

The bill’s text has yet to be released, so nobody can say exactly what’s on it, but many believe it would put some power in the hands of the police. Mobile companies argue that making the kill switch part of police procedure could cause loads of issues. Other government or law enforcement officials could even take advantage of the technology. And don’t forget hackers; no technology out there can completely guarantee safety from hackers. In fact, it’s happened already; just ask Mat Honan, who tried out Apple’s wiping feature.

What might come of this bill? Technology continues to create challenges for our country’s lawmakers, and all we can do is continue to experiment with them and do our best to adjust accordingly. Hopefully, the bill takes into consideration all possibilities, making sure we don’t end up with more security breaches than we already face.

(Article by Emily Green)

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