“Kill Switch” – Another Dumb Government Idea

Prosecutors from New York City and San Francisco met with four large smartphone vendors on June 13 in a meeting that was billed ahead of time as “brainstorming to find solutions to the epidemic of smartphone thefts.”

There is no question that smartphone theft is a major law enforcement issue.  According to the FCC, smartphone theft accounts for 30 to 40 percent of all robberies nationwide.  A working group has been formed to work on the problem, co-chaired by New York Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman and San Francisco District Attorney George Gascon.  See an excellent article on the general issue from the New York Times here.

This movement, however, is not as it has been described.  Mr. Schneiderman and Mr. Gascon held a press conference to push their solution BEFORE meeting with representatives of Apple, Google, Samsung and Microsoft; which shows clearly that they were not interested in brainstorming with companies that have great technical expertise.  Instead, they were interested in pressuring those companies to adopt their typical government overkill idea – the “kill switch.”

Let’s examine what the prosecutors’ idea is, and what it means.  Then, we can compare it to the solution announced by Apple at its Worldwide Developers Conference on Monday.

What is a “Kill Switch?”

The idea of a “Kill Switch” is to have a method of making a smartphone permanently inoperable if it is reported as stolen.  The idea is that thieves will not steal phones that immediately become worthless.  Here is how the New York Times, in the article referenced above, describes it:

When consumers reported to providers that their cellphone had been stolen, the phone, like a stolen credit card, would be rendered inoperable.

“For the thieves who would steal them,” Mr. Schneiderman said, the phones would be “nothing more than a paperweight.”

The Wall Street Journal, reporting on the press conference, described the system this way:

“Thieves have to know that there is no reason to steal a smartphone,” Mr. Schneiderman said at a press conference Thursday. He said the group hopes to work collaboratively with the smartphone industry but will escalate the effort using its “investigative powers” if needed.

“The stakes here are very high and we intend to pursue this with every tool in our toolbox,” he said.

Like so many government “solutions” to problems, this idea seems to make sense at first blush but rapidly falls apart upon closer examination.

What’s Wrong with the Idea?

The key to the “Kill Switch” proposal is that a smartphone would not ever be able to be reactivated once it is killed.  This is also the key to the problems with the idea.  After all, how many times do people discover that a phone that they feared had been stolen had merely been misplaced?  Or it fell out of a pocket and ended up being returned?  Or even borrowed by a friend or family member.

Should all of those phones be permanently ruined?

My daughters attend a high school where the vast majority of students carry smartphones.  Very few days go by without an email being sent to all students and faculty asking for help recovering a phone that has gone missing.

Should all of those phones be permanently ruined?

Even when phones really are stolen, many are ultimately recovered and returned to the rightful owner.  The Internet is filled with articles about how to recover a phone using the “Find My iPhone” feature from Apple (several examples are here, here, here and here).

Should all of those phones be permanently ruined?

Just a little thought shows that the owner of a smartphone is LESS likely to  report a missing smartphone.  Today, without a “Kill Switch” in place, the possibility of recovery of a stolen smartphone is probably quite low – but not zero.  With a “Kill Switch” system in place, the possibility of recovering a working smartphone goes to zero immediately upon reporting the phone as stolen.

No matter how low the possibility of recovery without reporting the phone as missing, it is higher than zero, so the owner is hurting himself or herself by saying that the phone is stolen.  It is only logical to assume that smartphone owners will. therefore, not report a missing smartphone as being stolen.  So, the number of reports of stolen smartphone is likely to plummet – but not because the number of thefts goes down.  That might make law enforcement statistics look better, but only because thefts are going unreported – not because thefts have stopped.

Further, putting a “Kill Switch” into all smartphones creates a risk that a terrorist, an enemy government, or even a disgruntled employee could permanently destroy the device that many people use as their primary communications tool – for telephone calls, for text messaging, for emails, for social media, for accessing the internet, etc.  Why would any reasonable government official try to create such a security risk?

A Better Solution

On Monday, June 10, Apple announced its next-generation smartphone operating system (iOS 7) at its Worldwide Developers Conference (WWDC).  The new version of iOS, to be released this fall, includes a significantly improved “Find My iPhone” feature.  Here is how it is described on the Apple web site:

Losing your iPhone feels lousy. Thankfully, Find My iPhone can help you get it back. But if it looks like that’s not going to happen, new security features in iOS 7 make it harder for anyone who’s not you to use or sell your device. Now turning off Find My iPhone or erasing your device requires your Apple ID and password. Find My iPhone can also continue to display a custom message, even after your device is erased. And your Apple ID and password are required before anyone can reactivate it. Which means your iPhone is still your iPhone. No matter where it is.

So, the Apple solution makes an iPhone useless to a thief, but able to be reactivated and used by the rightful owner if it is recovered.  To me, this system as all the benefits of what the prosecutors are trying to pressure smartphone makers to adopt, without any of the negatives.

So What is Really Going On?

The Apple solution was announced several days before the prosecutors held their press conference to put pressure on smartphone makers.  They could easily have realized that their “Kill Switch” idea had flaws that did not exist in the Apple solution and really had the collaborative brainstorming meeting that they had described when inviting the representatives of the four largest smartphone vendors.  So why didn’t they?

The New York Attorney General and the San Francisco District Attorney are both elected offices.  The current holders of those offices, Eric T. Schneiderman and George Gascon, are politicians.  Importantly, both of them has aspirations of achieving higher office.  A step in that direction would be to become highly visible on an issue, convince the voting public that they had forced big businesses to do something on that issue, and take credit for solving the issue.

As was shown above, the “Kill Switch” idea would not solve the problem of smartphone theft, but would vastly reduce the number of reported stolen smartphones.  So, the statistics would look better.   Mr. Schneiderman and Mr. Gascon could each use those statistics to claim that they solved the problem of smartphone theft (even though they didn’t solve it).  Their actions show that they are less interested in benefitting the public than they are interested in advancing their own political careers.

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