California legislators are contemplating a first-of-its-kind law that would force cell phone companies to build "kill switches" into their cell phones to disable them in case of theft.
State Sen. Mark Leno (D-San Francisco) plans to introduce a bill that would require all such devices to include some kind of feature that allows remote disabling by Jan. 1, 2015. San Francisco District Attorney George Gascon, and Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti and Police Chief Charlie Beck all back the measure, which proponents argue would eliminate the black-market value of smartphones.
According to a study of 2011 data by mobile security firm Lookout, the cities where residents are most likely to lose their phones are, in order: Philadelphia, Seattle, Oakland, Ca., Long Beach, Ca., Newark, Detroit, Cleveland, Baltimore, New York and Boston. In Philadelphia and Seattle, residents lost smartphones an average of twice a year.
Cell phone companies aren't happy about elimination of any value, legal or illegal. The stolen-phone market also contributes to their profits. So they're playing on the American fears du jour by claiming that "kill switches" would "open doors" to hackers and government surveillance. (What do they mean "open" the doors? The current vulnerabilities of cell phones without kill switches are well known.)
A New York Times story from a few months ago gets to the real heart of the companies' foot-dragging:
Mr. Gascón said that, based on e-mails he had reviewed between a Samsung executive and a software developer, it appeared that the carriers were unwilling to allow Samsung to load the antitheft software. The emails, he said, suggest that the carriers are concerned that the software would eat into the profit they make from the insurance programs many consumers buy to cover lost or stolen phones.
“Corporate profits cannot be allowed to guide decisions that have life-or-death consequences,” Mr. Gascón said. “This solution has the potential to safeguard Samsung customers, but these emails suggest the carriers rejected it so they can continue to make money hand over fist on insurance premiums.”
And of course there's the even more obvious reason—people whose phones are stolen buy more phones. The "Apple picking" cell-phone thieves and the cell-phone manufacturers are natural allies. And you are the quarry.