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'Kill-Switch' Legislation Pending; Will it Kill Phone Theft?

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By William Peacock, Esq. on March 03, 2014 12:59 PM

Things were easier before the advent of smartphones. Dumb phones, locked to one's carrier, were mostly useless once stolen. The victim would call their carrier, report the flip phone as stolen, and the phone's serial number would be blacklisted. A dumb phone, once blacklisted, might be worth $50 if sold abroad or parted out. Not exactly worth the trouble, right?

Smartphones have changed that, somewhat. If a smartphone is stolen, that person's carrier will probably block it. But most of the flagship smartphones, such as iPhones, have the requisite technology to run on any network. Blacklist a phone on Verizon and it'll work on Sprint, or a prepaid carrier, or abroad. And how much is a decent smartphone worth on eBay -- $400? That's much more worth the risk than a $50 flip phone.


PC Word reports that a second federal "kill-switch" bill has been introduced, this time into the U.S. House of Representatives. It follows a bill introduced into the Senate last month.

The bills would make the inclusion of a "kill-switch" in smartphones mandatory. Such a feature would allow the true owner to remotely wipe data from the device and disable it, making it mostly useless to the thief.

Why are lawmakers in such a rush? Supporters of the bill claim that 30 percent of all robberies involve a smartphone, a figure that fits with what we've previously reported.

Will it Help?

Somewhat, but where there's a $500 device, there will be a crafty thief.

One solution for would-be thieves is serial number cloning. Is the phone kill-switched? Use a computer to restore the phone to its factory state, then use other software to clone a serial number from a broken phone. Of course, this is highly illegal, and selling a phone with a spoofed serial number to legitimate consumers is difficult, if not impossible.

And then there's the parts market. Craigslist and eBay are full of people parting out their phones because the screen broke, or the casing cracked, (or they stole it and it was blacklisted, or Apple's already in place, yet optional, kill-switch nuked the device).

Casual thieves will be deterred by a kill-switch, and such a law would likely reduce the amount of smartphone thefts. Just don't expect it to cure the problem altogether.

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