Can a 'kill switch' cut the rate of smartphone theft?

  • Posted: Friday, February 28, 2014 12:01 a.m.

There are so many things technology does to make our lives better. There's also some things technology could do to make our lives better, but for some reason doesn't.

Here's an interesting current example. Did you know that, even as crime overall in the U.S. has been dropping over the last 10 or 15 years, smartphone theft has reached epidemic proportions?

It's not surprising. Those things can cost $600 and are easy to swipe, conceal and transport. (They are also worth a lot of money overseas.) The theft numbers are amazing. The FCC in 2012 released a survey of smartphone theft.

Among the stats: 40 percent of the robberies in New York City involved smartphones. And many thieves, of course, are after something more valuable than the phone: your personal information, access to your banking and email, and other deviousness.

So what are we going to do about it? That's the question some consumers have been asking for years, and it seems as if there's a simple solution: Adding a feature to allow owners to render a stolen device useless via a blocking device: the so-called "kill switch."

Lawmakers in California, spurred by the state attorney general, have been considering a mandatory kill switch bill. That proposal caught the attention of the industry; California is such a big market it would make a de facto national standard.

In the meantime, a group of senators in Washington, D.C., have proposed a similar bill, the Smartphone Theft Prevention Act, proposed earlier this month.

The idea of both is that, once it's understood that stolen phones were probably unusable, the market for hot phones would be at least trimmed. (Phones could still be stolen for parts, I guess.)

Now, a consortium of phone companies is against these laws. One argument: That kill switches could be hacked. There's even the specter raised of Homeland Security phones being bricked en masse in a terrorist attack.

Leaving aside the silly latter part of the argument, I'm still not convinced this is an issue. It might be true that someone wanting to do you mischief might take the time to brick your phone out of spite, but that should be as preventable as any other type of hack, right? And, seriously, the chances of that happening are a lot less than that of the phone getting stolen. And there certainly isn't a similar financial incentive.

Another argument against the kill switch is that a better solution would be a national database of stolen cellphones, which buyers would presumably check before a second-hand phone is bought. This has supposedly been available for years, but you don't hear much about it, do you?

I'm going to go out on a limb and suggest that perhaps the makers' lack of enthusiasm on the subject is that they make a lot of money from folks having to replace all those stolen phones. Some even twist consumers' arms to buy so-called insurance against loss or theft, for $5 or $10 per month, plus a deductible of $100 or more.

There are apps, too, like Apple's useful Find My iPhone (www.apple.com/icloud/find-my-iphone.html), Google's Android Device Manager, or the universal Prey (preyproject.com/), but even this doesn't have the appeal of a mandatory and easy-to-use universal feature that everyone knew about.

The real problem: "Kill switch" is a juicy name, but in fact the technology is not simple. It's something that has to be built deep into the phone's innards, to ensure that a simple reset of the device wouldn't cancel it out. That said, after considering the options, I'm in favor of the most consumer-friendly model possible. Remember that many vulnerable users, like seniors, aren't necessarily geeks who will easily be able to maneuver a complex process.

I say if your phone is stolen, you should be able to call your provider, properly ID yourself as the owner of the phone, and immediately get the thing bricked.

On the off chance you get it back, re-activation should be quick, easy and cheap. It doesn't do you much good if it's your phone stolen, you're still going to have to buy a new one, it might work to reduce theft rates.

The providers and manufacturers have shown they are quite creative when it comes to prices and confusing coverage plans. Let's see them put that ingenuity to work on this consumer-friendly service, which might just put a bite into a problem all of us might face.

Until then, of course, we all need to be safe. Make sure you have a PIN code set. Check out my column on Essential Steps to Secure Your Smartphone at www.komando.com/tips/12475/7-essential-steps-to-secure-your-smartphone/all. And keep an eye on your habits: Stay ahead of the thieves! Keep your phone in an inside pocket. Don't use it out in public in a way that leaves you vulnerable; leaving it out on your table as you sit in a restaurant or cafe is asking for trouble.

Kim Komando hosts the nation's largest talk radio show about consumer electronics, computers and the Internet. Hear it locally at 94.3 WSC News Radio noon-3 p.m. Sundays. For more information, go to www.komando.com.

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