iPhone Thefts Decrease Due to Kill Feature, But Don’t Get Too Excited

According to Reuters, thefts involving smartphones have declined in three major cities (San Francisco, New York, and London) after manufacturers implemented software-based kill switches into the devices. Smartphone theft is a serious problem. The article notes that in certain cities in California, smartphone thefts account for more than half of all crimes. Last year, California passed a law that requires all phones sold after July 1, 2015 to contain a kill switch. The full text of the bill is here if you’re interested in the details.

Before we all jump up and down and rejoice at the decrease in violent crime resulting from smartphones, however, consider these two arguments against kill switches in a Wired article:

1. Law enforcement could abuse the kill switch to disable phones. In support of this argument, the article cites a 2011 incident in which transportation officials shut off cell phone service at BART stations during protests against a shooting.

2. If law enforcement can access the kill switch, so can any hacker with malicious intent. Some kill switches could prevent people from calling for help (e.g. in domestic violence situations).

Bruce Schneier made the same arguments in an old blog post around the time the law was passed. He previously pointed out that, more generally, kill switches on devices such as phones, computers, cameras, and other devices would require a “nearly flawless system of hierarchy.” In other words, who controls the kill switch?

A decrease in smartphone thefts is no doubt desirable, but we should also ask:

1. Whether a kill switch is the right way to achieve this goal. More specifically, is the implementation of a kill switch worth the cost its potential abuse by others?

2. Even if a kill switch is desirable, do we really need legislation mandating that every phone should have one?

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