Article Lead Image

Federal ‘kill switch’ law could leave phone thieves holding useless bricks

Lawmakers look to curb rampant cell phone theft


Tim Sampson


Posted on Feb 14, 2014   Updated on May 31, 2021, 6:14 pm CDT

Following in the footsteps of a California bill, federal lawmakers have introduced legislation aimed at curbing mobile device theft by mandating a “kill switch” in all cellular devices.

Four Democratic senators rolled out the proposed mandate on Thursday. Kill switch technology allows carriers to remotely brick mobile devices, effectively destroying their value to would-be thieves.

“Cell phone theft has become a big business for thieves looking to cash in on these devices and any valuable information they contain, costing consumers more than $30 billion every year and endangering countless theft victims,” said Sen. Amy Klobuchar, (D-Minn.), one of the bill’s sponsors.

As people have grown inseparable from their mobile devices, they’ve become prime targets for street crime. According to the Federal Communications Commission, cell phone thefts now account for 30 to 40 percent of all robberies nationwide.

Supporters of the “Smartphone Theft Prevention Act” say the bill will go further than current safeguards offered by cell phone carriers who oppose a kill switch requirement. CTIA-The Wireless Association is an industry organization representing the nation’s leading phone carriers. The group has created a blacklist for stolen devices to keep them from being activated domestically. But kill switch supporters says the blacklist does nothing to prevent the phones from being activated overseas, where stolen American phones fuel a thriving black market.

“So long as these devices are still operable, this crime trend will continue to escalate,” said Philadelphia Police Commissioner Chuck Ramsey, in a statement supporting the bill. “That’s why the proposed kill switch is the only way to get the job done.”

The bill is similar to legislation introduced by state lawmakers in California last month. But whereas the California bill would require all wireless devices to have kill switches, the federal law has a narrower focus, only requiring kill switches on cellular devices.

Even if the federal bill fails, phone manufacturers may go ahead with kill switches if the California law passes. California is such a large market, the many manufacturers would find it easier to start putting kill switches in all their devices rather than creating an entirely separate line just for California.

Some mobile device makers have already shown their support for kill switches. Apple and Samsung have already introduced or proposed their own versions of such a feature. But it’s faced strong opposition from the wireless carriers who publicly express worry that some criminals will still be able to hack bricked phones.

“Rather than impose technology mandates, a better approach would be to enact Senator [Chuck] Schumer’s legislation to criminalize tampering with mobile device identifiers,” said Jot Carpenter, CTIA’s vice president of government affairs, in a written statement. “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.”

But San Francisco District Attorney George Gascón, a backer of both the California and federal bills, says that CTIA’s real motivation is to continue to reap the financial profits of theft insurance premiums and the billions customers spend every year replacing their stolen devices.

H/T re/code | Photo by Aaron Smith/Flickr

Share this article
*First Published: Feb 14, 2014, 4:57 pm CST