May 15 2014

Smartphone Kill Switch Gains Steam

Minnesota has passed a law that requires new smartphones sold or manufactured in the state to have anti-theft technology.

Minnesota may be paving the way for other states and federal lawmakers considering new measures that would require smartphones to come preinstalled with anti-theft technology.

This capability is often referred to as a kill switch function, which enables smartphone owners to remotely disable their device if it is lost or stolen. The intent is to reduce the incentive for thieves looking to steal these pricey, handheld computers.

Come July 2015, all smartphones manufactured, sold or purchased in Minnesota must have preloaded anti-theft functionality or be capable of downloading that feature free of charge, according to legislation signed into law May 14 by Gov. Mark Dayton. The law does not apply to feature phones, notebooks, tablet computers or any device that only has electronic reading capabilities.

“This law will help combat the growing number of violent cellphone thefts in Minnesota,” said Gov. Dayton upon signing the measure into law.

Minnesota is the first state in the country to pass kill switch legislation for smartphones, but it may not be the last. The California State Senate passed a law May 8 that would require cellphones sold in the state to have anti-theft software installed. Under the law, device dealers who intentionally violate provisions for reselling smartphones will be guilty of a misdemeanor.

Digital lifestyle commentator Kim Komando points out in USA Today that California’s decision could have far-reaching implications: “That proposal caught the attention of the industry; California is such a big market it would make a de facto national standard.”

But device manufactures aren’t waiting on California to institute kill switch capabilities on their devices.

ZDNet, the LA Times and others have reported that Apple, Samsung and Microsoft are among the vendors that will voluntarily include anti-theft tools preloaded on their devices or available for download at no cost to smartphone users.

“Starting July 2015, a number of heavyweights in the mobile device category have committed to introduce kill switches that let users remotely lock and wipe their handsets if they are stolen,” according to ZDNet. In fact, Apple and Samsung have introduced some anti-theft features to disable lost or stolen devices, but each comes with its own set of challenges.

Chief information officers must ensure that they understand the ramifications as more smartphones come preloaded with software that — if activated — could render devices inoperable. Are there capabilities to undo the kill switch, and how easily can that be done?

Lianne Caetano, McAfee’s director for mobility product marketing, writes of the potential security risks of kill switch technology cited by industry groups.

“Mainly, if all devices were made with this capability, there is the possibility that it could be used maliciously to disable devices for spite or targeting specific groups of users —like government employees,” Caetano writes.