Why Adding A ‘Kill Switch’ To Smartphones To Try To Discourage Theft Is A Terrible Idea

Senior Contributor
12.12.13 10 Comments


The state of New York is very concerned about cell phone theft. And for good reason; it turns out that 14% of all crime in NYC is iPhone theft. So the state of New York wants to make that theft less appealing by having a kill switch on every phone… and are threatening cell-phone manufacturers who refuse to include it as part of their products. But left out of this discussion is how it benefits the consumer.

There’s a reason for that. Having a kill switch on your phone benefits nobody… except possibly the state of New York.

The Technology

Unlike most anti-theft apps, the technology in question is software from Samsung that, when actively, permanently wrecks the phone. You flip the switch and the phone is essentially a doorstop. This goes quite a bit further than other anti-theft solutions: Most of those either track your phone, or simply lock it up and send out a beacon for law enforcement to find it.

You might be asking what the problem is. Well, there are a few problems. The most basic being…

It Screws The Consumer

One thing that the state of New York isn’t saying, but is pretty clearly a factor here, is that this kill switch won’t solve the problem of the consumer being stuck with the bill. Bricking the phone means you have to buy a new one, and if you’re on a contract, you’re still on the hook for the old one… unless you want to pay another $10 a month for phone insurance. Most anger around this states that cellphone companies are making money off of this… but considering the current state of things, a kill switch will do absolutely nothing to change this.

Bricking the phone also means the police will have no way to find the thief, which would seem to be useful in the sense of sending thieves to jail is sort of the job of the police. Then again, breaking up international property theft rings is expensive; making the consumer buy a new phone is cheap.

It Opens The Door To Serious Abuse

It doesn’t really take much of a prognosticator to figure out that including a function like this is both stupid and dangerous. On the “stupid” side of things, you might as well just call this the Troll Button. Including this technology in phones would essentially make it only a matter of time before some enterprising young hacker decided to brick every Android handset he could find because Apple roolz.

On the “dangerous” side of things, incorporating a back door to shut down cell phones would be the kind of thing oppressive regimes, abusive spouses, and other assorted scary people would love to see; finally, the ability to just shut up anyone they don’t like with the press of a button. It also raises some questions about how American police might use a tool like this, considering their distaste for being filmed doing something unethical.

Current Anti-Theft Measures Are Effective… When They’re Used

Finally, the simple fact of the matter is that current anti-theft measures do work. It’s true they only work until the thieves wipe the phone, or disconnect it from networks. But they do work, when they’re used, and when the police can be bothered to follow up on a report.

It’s true that the police should focus on problems more pressing than iPhones being stolen, but by the same token, it’s disingenuous to shove responsibility off onto cellphone manufacturers and consumers. And it’s worrying that this is being promoted as a solution when the only party to benefit out of the deal is the state of New York.

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