The California kill switch: a smart solution to a real problem

From July 30, 2015, all smartphones sold in California must have a so-called kill switch, a function that will allow the device to be permanently disabled and wiped, preventing them from being restarted by normal procedures.

The disabling cannot be reverted via a complete reset of the device, and can only be enabled by typing in a password. The move deals with the problem at two levels: on the one hand, by requiring manufacturers to install a kill switch, and on the other by making it illegal to sell devices without one, subject to fines of up to $2,500 for each phone sold.

The initiative aims to tackle the problem of smartphone theft, which in some cities is driving up crime rates. With many devices costing as much as €700, the availability of simple reset procedures, and a healthy black market for stolen devices, smartphones are increasingly being targeted by thieves.

At present, only the latest iPhones, using the IOS 7 operating system fully meet the requirements of California’s upcoming law, and are able to be remotely wiped, disconnected, and that can only be made operative again by using a specific password. The Android L series, which can do the same, is expected to go on sale later this year. Earlier versions of both systems can be remotely wiped, but not fully disabled, which in the final analysis is the only real disincentive to theft.

Some phones do include location applications or will take a photograph of whoever is holding the device. But the police tend to be busy with other problems, and going after a thief could be dangerous, and what’s more a court order is required. In short, very few stolen phones are ever recovered.

The need to be able to shut down a phone definitively via remote control has grown in recent years as devices have become more complex and are used for a range of highly sensitive uses and contain valuable information. Similar approaches have worked to reduce crime in other sectors: between 1990 and 2013, car thefts in New York fell by 96 percent thanks to electronic immobilization systems that prevented the tried and trusted method of hotwiring. In the case of luxury automobiles, the use of geopositioning systems has been in use for more than a decade.

This is going to become a bigger issue in the coming years, when more and more objects will be connected to electronic communications systems: the incentive to steal could be drastically reduced by installing such mechanisms. Imagine thieves entering your home: many of the things that would attract their attention, such as televisions are computers, are connected to the internet, and could be fitted with disabling systems.

We may see the emergence of a new type of cyber criminal determined to crack and dismantle disabling systems, or that are more interested in hacking into your phone to steal data rather than the device itself. At the same time, perhaps we can look forward to the day when we can leave our phone on a café table when we go to the bathroom, secure in the knowledge that nobody will steal it, because quite simply, there is no point in doing so.

(En español, aquí)