Smartphone Kill Switch Threatens Liberty (2014 May)

by Barry A. Liebling

My smartphone has never been lost or stolen. Still, I am interested in learning about new ways to reduce the chance of becoming the victim of theft. If you have a new idea, a product or service, tell me about it, and I may be convinced. But if you try to force something on me, if you attempt coercion and insist on my participation, you will lose me. Strong-arm tactics spoil everything.

The idea of a kill switch on smartphones is intriguing. There are various ways to configure the hardware and software in smartphones that give the owner the ability to disable a missing phone. Some kill switch solutions are mild. I know smartphone users who can remotely wipe out personal information such as passwords and contact details if their phones are purloined. If their lost phone is recovered it is still functional. They may never get their phones back, but at least vital private data are not compromised. In this scenario a thief can sell the phone since it remains in good working order.

Other kill switch tactics are more extreme – trashing the missing phone so it will no longer function. Here it takes a lot of effort to get it to work again. Proponents of this type of kill switch point out that non-working phones are not attractive to potential buyers, and thieves will be less interested in stealing them in the first place. Note that the bandit who takes the phone can still sell its parts. The downside for you is that a recovered phone is an expensive paperweight.

Of course, kill switch technology can be exploited by bad guys. If you can send out a signal that disables your phone, malicious hackers will look for ways to send out a similar signal to wreck your smartphone. Before you buy into a kill switch system consider that you may be on the receiving end of an illicit kill switch attack.

There are low tech alternatives to high tech kill switches. In New York City where I live there is an epidemic of smartphone theft. Much of it could be reduced if people were more vigilant. Every day I see pedestrians with their faces in their phones – nearly oblivious to their surroundings. Many seem to be making it easy for a thief to quickly snatch their device and run. In crowded restaurants customers put their phones on tables within grabbing distance of anyone who walks by – an invitation to mischief. How much would smartphone theft be reduced if the devices were equipped with hand straps? No way to tell until the experiment is conducted, but it must be more difficult to swipe property that is securely attached to its owner.

In a free society individuals have the power to decide for themselves how to guard their property. Some will go to extraordinary measures to deter thieves, while others will be habitually careless. If the free market for kill switches is large, a lot of people will use them. Handset manufacturers might build it into their phones at the factory. Alternatively, add-on hardware and software will be produced for phone owners interested in purchasing it.

How popular kill switches become should be determined by phone owners. Some will eagerly look for a kill switch solution that meets their needs. Others will decide that kill switches are not for them. Old fashioned vigilance might be sufficient.

But freedom to decide how to manage your own life is precisely what busybodies find intolerable. Inveterate meddlers “just know what you should do for the common good.” They are irritated that you have the authority to make decisions that they do not approve of. The District Attorney of San Francisco and the Attorney General of New York State are outspoken advocates of the smartphone kill switch. They are not satisfied that the technology exists and that it might catch on – or might not – in a free market. They are pushing to make it mandatory that smartphones in their districts have kill switches. Joining the parade – and demonstrating again the authoritarian desire to make everything either compulsory or forbidden – are members of congress writing federal legislation to require kill switches on all phones sold in the US.

It is interesting that politicians who are pushing kill switches say that the technology will reduce theft effectively only if everyone has it. And their default method of achieving ubiquity is to force cell phone service providers to include it whether the companies or their customers want it or not. Of course part of the new law would further stipulate that end users cannot be charged extra for kill switch “protection.” Users may not notice that they are paying for it if everyone’s bill goes up by the same amount. Does this remind you of the Affordable Care Act?

As you would expect, these government experts are confident that “society as a whole” will benefit from their “wise intervention.” If politicians succeed in making kill switches compulsory will they take responsibility for phones that are destroyed by malignant hackers? Of course not. They will insist that their flawed legislation be fixed with even more laws.

Incidently, if legislators try to reduce theft with kill switches are hand straps next? Should cell phone owners be required to use them?

What is the proper stance for companies that provide kill switch technology? They should avoid the crony capitalist route and speak out against laws that abridge anyone’s liberty. Responsible firms should say that their business model depends on dealing by mutual consent. Kill switch technology can be valuable – but only if everyone’s freedom to choose is respected.

*** See other entries at in “Monthly Columns.” ***

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