Would A Built-in Killswitch Deter Smartphone Theft?

How do you stop the growing epidemic of stolen smartphones? Lawmakers in California seem to think it’s by mandating providers to sell devices with built-in “kill switch” capabilities that would make stolen phones inoperable. This month, when the California Senate approved a bill that would require smartphone providers to build a “kill switch” feature into their devices, a key question was left unanswered: Is this the solution to smartphone theft?

You’d be hard-pressed to find a consensus among industry experts on the matter. What’s clear is that cell phone theft is a growing problem. In 2013, more than three million devices were stolen in the U.S., up from 1.6 million in 2012, according to Consumer Reports. And in San Francisco alone, 2,400 cellphones were stolen in 2013, up by 23 percent from the year before, according to the San Francisco Police Department. “Police departments across the U.S. are starting to drown in smart phone thefts,”says Tom Kemp, CEO of Centrify, a software and cloud security provider.

The bill, SB 962, introduced by State Senator Mark Leno and sponsored by San Francisco’s district attorney, George Gasc?n, is an attempt to curb these alarming figures. If approved by the California State Assembly and Governor Jerry Brown as early as August, it would require all smartphones sold after July 1, 2015 in California to include a kill switch function that would effectively “brick” stolen phones. Those sellers who don’t comply would face fines of up to $2,500 per device.

The bill, which was originally rejected by the California Senate in April and opposed by major providers including Apple (AAPL) and Microsoft (MSFT), passed this month with a vote of 26 to 8. While it targets the state of California, its effects would be national, as added features mandated by the state would likely make it into phones sold across the country.

Opponents of the bill including CTIA, the wireless association that represents providers, believe forcing providers to put a solution in place state-by-state will only hurt consumers in the end. The group believes that the industry itself should drive innovation in the field. “State-by-state technology mandates stifle innovation to the ultimate detriment to the consumer,” according to a statement released by Jamie Hastings, CTIA’s vice president of external and state affairs. In an attempt to take matters into its own hands, last month, CTIA released a “Smartphone Anti-Theft Voluntary Commitment,” an agreement signed by major industry players like Apple, Samsung, AT&T (T) and Verizon (VZN) who pledge that smartphones they manufacture after July 2015 will include free built-in antitheft tools.

But supporters of the bill aren’t convinced this is enough and see legislation as a way to speed up the process. “What that California legislation does is a positive step in encouraging the industry to actually develop a solution faster,” says Dmitri Alperovitch, cofounder and CTO of CrowdStrike Inc., a provider of security technology and services.

Others see it as a sign of meddling in the industry. “Proponents of a kill switch know nothing about how technology works,” says Robert Siciliano, a McAfee Online Security expert. “Whatever kill switch is implemented, will be hack-able and rendered useless by anyone with ill intent.”

Software-only based approaches have the potential to backfire. For one, they can be worked around by clever thieves. “If someone steals a phone, there are ways to block it from receiving communications that would kill a device,” says Greg Kazmierczak, CTO of Wave Systems, a provider of hardware-based encryption technology. For instance, a thief could place the stolen phone in a signal-blocking phone case that would prevent all electromagnetic communications from reaching the device. According to Kazmierczak, it could be possible to put it into one of those cases and perform whatever you need to in order to stop the kill signal from coming in.

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