Gov. Jerry Brown's Cell Phone Kill Switch Would Aid Criminals

In reaction to occasional violence involving robberies, California Governor Jerry Brown signed SB 962 on Monday, August 26, to launch the first-in-the-nation requirement that all smartphones sold in California be equipped with “kill switches.” These switches allow owners to remotely render the phone useless if stolen, according to the Los Angeles Times. But the measure will create opportunities for criminal gangs to use the kill switch protocol to commit other crimes and conduct mass shakedowns.

The measure was introduced by powerful Democrat state Senator Mark Leno of San Francisco and takes effect on phones made after July 1, 2015. It also had broad support from law enforcement, including Los Angeles Police Chief Charlie Beck and San Francisco District Attorney George Gascon, who have many horror stories about “Apple phone jacking.”

Leno issued a statement that said, “Our efforts will effectively wipe out the incentive to steal smartphones and curb this crime of convenience, which is fueling street crime and violence within our communities.”

Smartphones have a serial number and model number listed under the "Settings" tab or imprinted on the back of the device. Importantly, smartphones also have a unique device identification number, known as an International Mobile Equipment Identifier (IMEI). The IMEI is a 15 to 17-digit code assigned to each smartphone by manufacturers. It allows carriers to remotely disable the phone when contacted. The carriers can also enter the smartphone’s IMEI into a national database that tracks its location. All the U.S. carriers participate in the IMEI database, and it feeds into the Global System for Mobile and Universal Mobile Telecommunications Service networks.

A number of organizations concerned with privacy supported the measure. “Once again, California is leading the way on important issues surrounding individual privacy and public safety,” said James P. Steyer, founder and CEO of Common Sense Media.

But despite this supposed ease of compliance for the carriers, CTIA carrier association lobbying group opposed the legislation. According to a U.S. Federal Communications filing made by CTIA, a kill switch would be an attractive target for criminal organizations.

Professional hackers will undoubtedly discover the kill message to remotely take control of the smartphone. This will create substantial risks for people who work in defense or law enforcement, where hackers will also be able to worm their way into a smartphone's code and use it to bypass built-in safeguards like logins and passwords. They will also be able to employ denial of service (DoS) attacks.

Kill switch proponents argue that the CTIA's reluctance to adopt the technology is due to profit, since carriers offer stolen phone coverage by tacking on a voluntary fee. According to Warranty Week, the big four wireless carriers--AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile, and Verizon--billed an estimated $7.8 billion in protection plan premiums in 2013.

Consumer Reports estimated there were 3.1 million U.S. smartphone thefts in 2013, more than double the 2012 rate. Almost all these were snatch and grab, but some involved violence. Just like all rushed political fixes, Brown’s kill switch may lessen individual crime, but it will open up new “markets” for criminal gangs.

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