Proposal for Federal Bill that Would Require a 'Kill Switch' for Smartphones

By Joe Rizzo February 14, 2014

Recently legislation was proposed in California requiring smartphone manufacturers to include what can be called a kill switch in all their devices. Following close on California’s heels, Senate bill 2032 was introduced to the U.S. Senate this past Wednesday.

The bill is called “The Smartphone Prevention Act” and was proposed by Amy Klobuchar, who is a Democrat from Minnesota. The bill covers smartphones, tablets and any personal electronic device on which commercial mobile data service is provided. Basically, it targets only devices with a cellular connection.

The bottom line is that this bill would necessitate that smartphones have the ability for a kill switch. It also requires that consumers have the ability to remotely wipe and delete all of their personal data from a device that is stolen or lost.

As soon as I saw the headline, I could already imagine the arguments from both sides. One thing that might have a bearing on this issue is the ability to bring your own device (BYOD) to work. This now adds the potential of having your company’s data on your mobile device along with your personal information.

Jot Carpenter, who is vice president of government affairs at CTIA, said “While Senator Klobuchar and CTIA are of like mind when it comes to wanting to prevent the theft of wireless devices we clearly disagree on how to accomplish that goal. Rather than impose technology mandates, a better approach would be to enact Senator Schumer’s legislation to criminalize tampering with mobile device identifiers. This would build on the industry’s efforts to create the stolen device databases, give law enforcement another tool to combat criminal behavior, and leave carriers, manufacturers, and software developers free to create new, innovative loss and theft prevention tools for consumers who want them.”

Of course, criminalizing tampering with mobile device identifiers, means that your phone was already stolen and possibly all the information has already been acquired. The CTIA, which is the wireless association that represents the international wireless telecommunications industry, wants to build a database of stolen phones. Again, isn’t it a little late to use a list of stolen devices after the fact?

A potential problem with a kill switch is the fact that you might unintentionally activate it. What happens in that case? I suppose that there are actually two parts to this proposed bill. You have the switch that would disable your device and thus not allow anyone to use it and you have the ability to delete your personal data so that no one else can see or use it.

This is sort of like building a machine and then including a self-destruct button. It is an option to consider, but what happens if you accidentally push the button? Oops!  Another thing to consider is that someone should not be able to take this deactivated device and have it re-activated by another carrier.

The bill specifies that the remote wipe and "kill-switch" functions "may only be used by the account holder" and will apply to all such devices manufactured or imported in the U.S. from Jan. 1, 2015. There is an exemption for "low-cost, voice-only" phones that have limited data functionality. It also specifies that carriers "may not charge the account holder any fee for making the function ... available."

It does seem that smartphone theft is becoming a very serious problem in the U.S. In fact, reports show that two-thirds of street thefts in San Francisco involve smartphones. Oakland’s numbers appear to be even higher, so I can see why California is concerned about this.

Apple has introduced it activation lock feature in iOS 7. This is a feature that can be turned on by the owner but don’t come automatically activated. Samsung has included a feature on some of its devices that support the LoJack software however this requires an ongoing subscription.

It will be interesting to see how each of the carriers, all of the smartphone manufacturers and the general public all feel about such legislation. As I mentioned before, there are some benefits leading to security, but accidents also happen.

I remember the days when dad wore his keys on a chain attached to his belt. We already have wallets like that; will someone be coming out with a phone case that you can chain to yourself?

Edited by Ryan Sartor

TechZone360 Contributing Writer

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