Internet Kill Switch

Photo credit: Flickr/CyberHades

While Congress mulls over proposed federal legislation that would require smartphone manufacturers to incorporate a “kill switch” feature in all new devices sold, Minnesota just beat them to punch, becoming the first state to enact such a law. The so-called kill switch is a feature that would allow devices to be completely disabled—remotely—as a way to discourage and deter thieves from what has become the fastest growing street crime nationwide. According to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) 1.6 million smartphones were stolen in 2012. Today, in the U.S. alone, an estimated 113 smartphones are stolen or lost every minute! In New York City, smartphones now account for nearly half of all robberies. Not surprisingly, the overwhelming majority of devices stolen are Apple iPhones—reason enough that the nationwide smartphone theft epidemic has been dubbed “Apple picking.”

The theft of cell phones makes up 30 to 40 percent of all robberies nationwide, according to the FCC. In the United States, about 113 smartphones are stolen or lost every minute, according to data on [NY Attorney General Eric T.] Schneiderman’s Web site. More than 1.6 million people had their phones stolen last year.

Screenshot: Activate iPhone

Screenshot: Activate iPhone Images © 2014 by Apple, Inc.

But if you own an iPhone 4 or newer and you’ve upgraded to iOS 7—the latest version of Apple’s mobile operating system—your device already has a kill switch built in. Although prior versions of iOS included the Find My iPhone feature, thieves soon figured out they could circumvent the feature by simply turning the device off, and then reinstalling a fresh version of iOS. With iOS 7, however, Apple took Find My iPhone one step further, by including password protection and Activation Lock, the latter of which prevents nefarious users from disabling Find My iPhone, or erasing or reactivating a given device without first entering the linked Apple ID & password. All you have to do to make sure you have Activation Lock enabled is to turn on Find My iPhone in your iCloud settings. (It should also go without saying that the feature is only as good as your password.)

So, if Apple already has a kill switch built in, and the majority of devices stolen are iPhones, why the need for a new law? First of all, there are quite a few people who use Android-based devices—that platform is “open source,” which is inherently easier to thwart any security features that might be installed. Around the same time that Apple rolled out iOS 7, Samsung —manufacturer of the second most popular smartphone—had proposed pre-installing a third-party Lo Jack-branded theft deterrent application on its devices, but Samsung’s campaign was rejected by all U.S. cellular carriers. Lastly, even iPhone users could benefit from passage of the proposed legislation, because in addition to requiring the kill switch on all new devices, the proposed legislation would also crack down on the secondary market that deals in the stolen devices. The newly-enacted Minnesota bill “bars retailers from paying cash for used devices, and requires them to keep records on those transactions.” Merchants dealing in secondhand phones would have to document device information, require sellers to present identification, and instead of paying cash, sellers would receive a mailed check, electronic transfer, or store credit.

But if you’re making plans to move to Minnesota, don’t pack the U-Haul just yet. Its kill-switch bill doesn’t take effect until July 2015, which—assuming Congress can’t get a federal law passed first—gives other states (New York, California, and Illinois already have bills in the pipeline) time to get similar laws passed in places where sexy lingerie isn’t synonymous with tube socks and flannel pajamas.