The BBC is reporting that Minnesota has introduced a kill switch bill for smart phones (and has beat California to the punch). A “kill switch” is a way to incapacitate a phone, usually permanently. It’s a smart phone data security feature that’s already found on many phones, although not turned on by default. In my opinion, it takes a backseat to smart phone encryption since a kill switch still features a time lag, between when a phone is stolen and the kill signal is sent. This could mean minutes or hours. Even days.
However, the big idea behind the kill switch legislation is not to protect people’s data, but to eventually bring down the resale price of smartphones to zero – and thus make them an undesirable target for thieves.
Rising Crime Rates
One of the more fascinating stories over the past five years has been the rising rate smartphone crimes. It has been reported that the NYPD even has a team dedicated to iPhone thefts. Some have noted that crime rates appear would appear to be down overall…if the theft of smart phones are excluded.
With an impact like that, you can imagine why people are interested in preventing smart phone thefts. (This is not merely a matter of theft. People have been physically harmed, even killed, when they were mugged expressly because of their smart phone).
There are two types of kill switches, as the BBC explains. The “hard” type incapacitates a phone permanently; that is, it becomes an expensive paperweight. A “soft” kill switch makes the “phone unusable ‘to an unauthorized user,'” which I take it to mean that it messes with the OS. Just reload the operating system, and presto!, you’ve got yourself a working phone.
Obviously, the former type is better than the latter type if one is trying to curb smartphone-related crimes. A hard kill switch, when activated, would turn a smartphone into a brick, and make it about as profitable. But does it work?
Smart phone thefts are not as rampant in Europe, supposedly. The contrast is attributed to European laws that require kill switches, not to mention mobile carriers working together to ensure that stolen phones are rendered unusable. This is not to say that black markets for stolen smartphones do not exist, as the BBC reported last month. But, smartphone thefts are down in London.
But, as long as the phones can be activated in another region (China is a popular destination, apparently), smartphone-related crimes will never actually disappear.
Aluminum Foil Can Defeat Kill Switches
Speaking of other regions…kill switches can be easily defeated: you just have to prevent the signal from reaching the phone. And preventing it is easy and cheap. Assuming that a password is not in place (which you seriously should think of using), just turn on the airplane mode. This prevents any communications to and from the device, and renders the kill switch useless.
If access to airplane mode is impossible, just wrap it in aluminum foil. Or create what I call a poor-man’s Faraday cage: an aluminum envelope three layers thick. Drop the phone in, roll over the open end so as to enclose the object within, and you’ve blocked the smart phone from receiving any type of data. Shoplifters use something similar to bypass the security tag-and-gate systems.
Which is why, even if all US states and the federal government were to pass a kill switch law, you still want to make sure that that is your backup in terms of security. You want to make sure that a big part of BYOD security, mobile phone encryption, is turned on. All current phones being sold in the market come with disk encryption for free. Make use of it.
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