OK ‘kill switch’ for phones

What 21st century currency is wreaking havoc on the global economy and society? No, not the Bitcoin. But the smartphone.

The stealing and reselling of mobile phones, particularly iPhones, has become an industry in itself. Law-enforcement officials estimate that roughly one in three thefts involves a mobile communications device, the Wall Street Journal reported. A Consumer Reports estimate found that 1.6 million Americans were the victims of a smartphone theft in 2012. Some criminals are willing to kill for them.

(Interestingly, some researchers and law enforcement officials credit the rise in cell phone use with overall reduced crime rates, because people can call and report crime much more quickly and/or document the crime with a camera. The only time this isn’t true, of course, is when someone steals your phone and no one else is around.)

Sadly, the problem was illustrated last month in Seattle when David L. Peterson managed to hang on to his phone after a struggle with a would-be thief. Peterson called 911 to report the attempted theft, and police say that’s when the suspect, Byron White, 17, came back and shot Peterson, killing him instantly. White has been charged with first degree murder.

With similar crimes happening all over the country, (and the UK) law enforcement officials have been calling for laws that would require smartphone companies to install a kill switch that lets owners delete data from stolen devices and render them useless. This week New York became the latest state to join the national push for such legislation. California announced similar legislation last month. Importantly, the U.S. Senate is pushing its own bill — the Smartphone Theft Prevention Act.

While stolen tablets and phones can no longer be used on domestic mobile networks, overseas they can be reactivated and can fetch hundreds of dollars on the black market, the New York attorney general’s office said. Wireless companies have been reluctant to add a “kill switch,” warning that the technology could theoretically be used by criminals or terrorists to cut off phone communications, CBS News reported. Well, criminals and terrorists can likely do that regardless of any “kill switch” technology.

New York Police Commissioner William Bratton points out that companies profit when owners replace or insure devices, and their reluctance comes down to greed, CBS reported. “They are making a fortune on this, and they do not want to lose it,” Bratton said Monday. “Well, shame on them.”

Smartphone theft is a big enough problem that consumers shouldn’t have to worry that their phone carrier is enabling such crimes, and profiting from them. And it’s a big enough problem that it needs quick Congressional action, not state-by-state legislation. Pass the Senate’s bill.