Kill Switch: Can It Kill Smartphone Theft?

October 14, 2014
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Kill Switch: Can It Kill Smartphone Theft?

It’s funny how one thing can lead to another, but it’s not the butterfly effect when Flash Mobs—pseudo-spontaneous gatherings of people organized by mobile phones and social networks which run the gamut from precious forums for creative expression to a Stealth weapon in the neo-anarchist cookbook—do their stuff. Now, from the bogus Arab Spring to hundreds of U.S. flash mob robberies, to the outright street war of complex, organized looting in London 2011, we have moved on from a simple awareness of the phenomenon to something more participatory. Most people are no longer naïve enough about the game—as they were, say, in 1968—to realize that the toys we play with now can threaten our middle class existence. We may not be as worried about censorship or monopolies as we should, but when people are using social media for violence, there’s consensus that need to be stopped.

Incidents of mob street theft in cities all over the world have risen by as much as 800% if you let the hysterical headlines in newspapers like the Daily Mirror and the New York Post hold sway in your mindset. It’s not so much that these newspapers are telling outright lies as a kind of hysteria induced by the techno hyper-reality of city streets filled with pedestrians using smartphones and iPads. Yes! iPads, in plain sight, as folks go about their daily (and nightly) business. Consequently, street thieves have altered their modus operandi and tend to work in connected groups called ‘flash mobs’ which most often are groups of 20 to 30 youths striking a particular city block simultaneously, or hitting computer stores after dark, as in this video:

These groups overcome their victims and tend to beat and kick them into submission fast and make their exit on the run before meeting again at seem preordained location. Here’s another showing an attack on a St. Patrick’s Day tourist in Baltimore:

Manufacturers reacted slowly or not at all to this new reality until they too became victims of the piranha-like 24-hour news cycle. As such they became easy targets for the politics of law enforcement; middle class folks walking the streets don’t want to have their stuff taken from them in broad daylight.  They want to keep crime levels low and keep it among the poor. By next summer, most new smartphones may no longer be quite so attractive to thieves.

A kill switch is software that lets consumers lock down a phone after the device has been reported stolen; users can reactivate the phone only with the correct password or personal identification number. That makes it difficult to sell on the black market. Although Microsoft, Google, Nokia and Motorola are all in the final stages of adding a Kill Switch to their next model, rendering any devices unusable directly after they have been reported stolen. Meanwhile, ever ahead of the game, Apple have already had their kill switch, called an ‘Activation Lock,’ since September 2013.

Kill Switch: Can It Kill Smartphone Theft?

Meanwhile populist politicians, desperate for some kind of pluralist approval in Washington, D.C., have been making plans for additional security measures as new data from New York, San Francisco and London encourages support of the idea that that long-held belief of police all over the world that a kill switch will make smartphones far less appealing to thieves if they can no longer resell them on organized black markets. Indeed, after data was compared for the six months before and after Apple released its anti-theft feature, police said iPhone robberies in San Francisco dropped 38 percent, and 24 percent in London. Nevertheless, for better or worse, according to Consumer Reports there was still a total of 3.1 million smartphones stolen last year. In New York City, theft of Apple products dropped 19 percent and grand larcenies of Apple products dropped 29 percent in the first five months of 2014, compared with the same time period from 2013, according to a report from the New York Attorney General’s Office, using data from the New York City Police Department. By comparison, robbery of Samsung products increased 51 percent in the first five months of 2014, compared with the same period a year ago, the report said. Samsung have introduced a kill switch exclusively for their Galaxy S5 device in April. Unfortunately it will take until around January 2015 until its effect on theft rates are evaluated. Meanwhile, although Samsung’s other customers might well feel like disregarded guinea pigs, the company does not show high on the empathy stakes.

Ever eager to steer the public away from discussing bread and butter domestic issues like farm subsidies, immigration, monopolies controlling communications and health insurance, Washington politicians sense the November 2014 elections on the horizon and trip over each other pushing for stronger anti-theft features on smartphones. Minnesota was the first state to require a kill switch on all smartphones sold in state and were joined on the bandwagon by California in May after much fol-de-rol in the Sacramento state house over ‘corporate freedom’ from the movers and shakers in Palo Alto and Cupertino, according to the New York Times.

Kill Switch: Can It Kill Smartphone Theft?

What isn’t being said, however, is that Kill switches in their current form haven’t been rendered foolproof, either. They can’t be activated without an Internet connection, so a savvy thief can simply activate ‘airplane’ mode before the victim realizes the phone is missing. Hackers are also able to find ways to bypass the switch and falsify authorization. Apple are pretty good when it comes to dealing with this kind of threat pretty expeditiously, but will other manufacturers take care of similar issues in a timely and effective manner? Proper and successful kill switch implementation takes time.

Keep in mind also that there are two kinds of kill switches: Hard and soft. The hard switch alternative, if utilized, would “brick” the phone so it becomes a permanently crippled piece of useless junk, never to be massaged or adored again. This final solution might piss a lot of mobile owners off, but for so many fly-by-night phone manufacturers, the hard kill switch is a more viable alternative. Additionally with so many folks out there involved in doing what we’ll call  ‘off the books’ business, whether it’s dealing in drugs, illegal construction, gambling or the restaurant business and storing their information on their phones, the hard alternative is a far superior alternative to having the IRS investigate them.

Still, simplest of all is what follows. Through a simple database put together by FCC and mobile Carriers, this plan would simplify everything. It is, of course, seen as an enemy of everything the Tea Party, libertarians and the fanatical right wing of the republican party believe in.

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