Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Protecting Your Privacy - A Basic Rundown of Smartphone Kill Switches

A lot of debate has arisen over smartphones and kill switches. This is predominately a response to the actions of several state senates, including Minnesota and California, which passed controversial bills in the beginning of May. While varying in specific details, these bills are intent on requiring cell phone manufacturers to include “kill switch” technology in all their smartphones.

First things first, what does kill switch technology do?
Also known as “bricking” a cell phone, these kill switch programs are intended to allow the owner to render a device useless and its data unobtainable in the case of theft or loss. Some newer smartphones already have this feature available, such as Apple’s iOS 7, where it is called Activation Lock. Samsung has similar lock and kill switch features. Apple also already has a Find My iPhone app accessible for all their phones, iPads, and Macs that helps owners track their devices and decide if it was truly stolen or just simply misplaced.

How big of an issue is smartphone theft?
While some feel that features like kill switches or tracking apps are already widely available for concerned owners, others feel that even more must be done.

There is certainly no doubt that smartphones are a tempting target to thieves. Depending on the brand and value of the device, thieves can net themselves hundreds of dollars on the black market, and that's before we get into the profits reaped from selling your data and identity. iPhones are usually the most profitable, and iPhone theft has become so common that it has been nicknamed by some as “apple picking”.

Most prevalent in metropolitan areas, it was estimated that last year in 2013 an estimated 3 million Americans were hit by smartphone robberies. In addition, according to the D.C. Police Department, 40 percent or more of reported robberies in every large city region, such as Washington D.C., San Francisco, and New York, involved the theft of smartphones.

More than physical endangerment, theft of smartphones can also lead to identity theft if the phone is unprotected or not password locked.

What is being done and what are the concerns?
Clearly smartphone theft is a major problem. In a way however, the bills passed by Minnesota and California’s senates are just making doubly sure that the payoff of stealing smartphones is greatly reduced. This is because the concept of widely implementing “kill switches” to make smartphones unsellable and thus less attractive to thieves has already been addressed.

On April 15th, most major cell phone companies announced their participation in CTIA’s “Smartphone Anti-Theft Voluntary Commitment”, pledging to have “baseline anti-theft tools” (basically kill switch technology) downloadable or pre-installed in all smartphones manufactured after July of 2015. Participating companies include Apple, HTC, Google (Android), Motorola, Samsung, AT&T, Verizon, Nokia, T-Mobile, Sprint, and other large organizations.

Don’t expect news stations to stop discussing the “kill switch” controversy however. Some are concerned that implementing this type of technology will in fact make smartphones less secure, citing possible danger from hackers using those same “kill codes” to steal sensitive data and maliciously disable smartphones that are still in the hands of their owners.

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