Will Self-Imposed Smartphone Kill Switches Survive Despite Lack of Federal Legislation?

With the number of smartphone thefts in the U.S. reaching dangerous levels, there is a renewed push for mobile device manufacturers and telecom carriers to include a “kill switch” on all mobile devices. These kill switches would essentially allow a user to turn off the functionality of a device in the event it was lost or stolen, and in turn, reduce the value and demand for these stolen goods. Nearly 50% of all robberies in San Francisco alone involve smartphones, so this is going to continue to be a hot-button issue until a solution is reached.

I’ve discussed the kill switch issue previously, looking first at the SB962 initiative that would require these kill switches on all mobile devices. Unfortunately, the possibility of a federal kill switch law has hit a snag in the time since my last post—or at least, it was dealt a powerful blow after it failed to pass the Senate last week. Despite backing from law enforcement agencies and San Francisco District Attorney George Gascón, the bill fell two votes short of going forward.

However, in the wake of this hiccup, a number of groups have arisen who share strong opinions on both sides of the kill switch debate. For instance, many cellular service providers, lobbied for by their industry trade group, the Cellular Telecommunications Industry Association (CTIA), continue to argue against requiring a kill switch, saying that it could potentially give hackers the chance to remotely destroy smartphones and prevent customers from making emergency calls.

Smartphone manufacturers, on the other hand, are coming round to implementing kills switches on their own terms. For example, both Apple and Samsung introduced their own variations of advanced phone tracking and locking software. Apple’s “Find My iPhone” app allows consumers to lockdown their device if it goes missing, and the phone can only be used after the device owner enters in their username and password. Samsung phones also offer a similar functionality.

Most recently, in lieu of an actual law requiring kill switches, leading phone manufacturers are getting behind the “Smartphone Anti-Theft Voluntary Commitment.” The commitment states that new smartphones made after July 2015 will come with “preloaded or downloadable” anti-theft programs. As outlined, the proposed program would let consumers remotely wipe their data, render the phone inoperable to unauthorized users, and preserve lockdown status after a factory reset, while still allowing it to make emergency calls, as well as offer a restore option in event the device was recovered.

While this voluntary commitment is a step in the right direction, its ability to decrease device theft is uncertain. Because these anti-theft features would not be turned on by default, it would still be up to the user to make sure the options are enabled. As it stands now, 34% of consumers don’t use any security on their smartphones, meaning that the potential adoption rate of opt-in kill switches may not be high enough to de-incentivize device theft.

So what’s the safety-conscious consumer to do? Well, here are a few tips you can use to minimize the damage in the event your device is lost or stolen in the meantime:

  • Be aware of your surroundings. Smartphone theft is a crime of opportunity. The best way to prevent that opportunity is to be aware of where you are and your smartphone usage habits. Know who’s around you, keep a tight grip on your device and avoid using your smartphone in crowded areas where crooks can grab and run. Additionally, don’t leave your devices unattended in plain sight. A café table is an easy place for a fast-thinking thief to snatch your smartphone.
  • Enable phone-tracking software and mobile security. McAfee® Mobile Security, free on both Android and iOS, can track your phone as it moves, remotely wipe contacts, as well as keep photos and videos in a secure vault to keep them protected even if a device gets lost or stolen.
  • Disable auto-logins on your mobile device. Automatically logging into your favorite apps is convenient, but dangerous. Thieves can easily gain access to financial information if the app is linked to a credit card or bank account. They can also record personal information for possible identity theft. By disabling automatic logins, you put a speed bump in the rapid road of theft.
  • Always secure your devices with a PIN or passcode. Protect your phone or tablet, as well as the information stored on it from prying eyes. While it may not prevent devices from being stolen, it will certainly make it more difficult for thieves to get access to anything on it. In the event your device is just misplaced temporarily, a PIN code will also keep out any potential snoopers.

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