Should all smartphones have a kill switch? 

Braden W., Age 16, Hong Kong International School

KYP Advanced Global Thinking Course


Topic: Should all smartphones have a kill switch?

In the past few years, smartphones have become almost ubiquitous in modern society, with demand outpacing other products on the mobile phone market and accounting for around 70% of all U.S. mobile devices by 2013. On the other hand, they have become one of the more risky things to be carrying around on the street, with about 1.6 million smartphones stolen in the U.S. in 2012. Thefts of smartphones are becoming an epidemic according to police chiefs and prosecutors. Around 40% of robberies in minor metros now involve a cellphone. The reason for this increase in robberies is simple: stolen smartphones make quick cash on the black market, selling for $200 or $300 USD on the street, or as much as $2000 HKD. One way to easily curb this influx of robberies of smartphones is to remove what makes them worth so much in the first place. By “bricking” phones, or turning them into useless paperweights, thieves would steal a lot fewer phones if they knew that owners could quickly render them useless. The idea of having a permanent “kill switch” on phones has been accepted by many, but the CTIA, the trade association that represents carriers such as Verizon and AT&T has opposed the installation of kill switches for numerous reasons. I believe kill switches should be installed in phones to help try to curb the rising trend of smart phone thefts.

One reason having a kill switch system is a good idea is that it is already guaranteed to be a secure system. One reason why people don’t want a kill switch system is that the “kill” message to activate the kill switches would be stored in a database somewhere, that someone has access to. They are afraid that someone with malicious intent could send “kill” messages to groups of people, disabling their phones. However an event like this would probably never happen, as security for the system would be very high and be very hard to break into. We already have many forms of private data stored in databases somewhere, such as credit card numbers and the security is very high, making it not worth the effort to even try to break into.

Kill switches are also already better than the idea that the CTIA and FCC implemented, in which they set up a d database for stolen phones that is supposed to block them from being reactivated by participating carriers. While this is better than doing nothing, there are still shortcomings associated. The database relies on a stolen phone’s unique identification number, which sophisticated criminals can alter. Even though the phone can’t make calls, it still might work on Wi-Fi networks. Also, the database doesn’t apply in most overseas markets where a lot of the stolen phones end up. A kill switch would just make the phone useless in the hands of the person who stole it as soon as the phone is reported stolen.

This idea is also cheaper for consumers, as one idea for kill switch protection would make the switch standard on all phones, but charge a flat fee per year for a premium add on that would either return a stolen phone or replace it with a new one. This idea would be cheaper than what cell phone carriers charge for insurance, which is $7 to $11 USD a month. This could also be a reason why carriers don’t want the kill switch, as it could hurt their already lucrative handset insurance business.

An argument that CTIA makes against the kill switch is the fact that kill switches permanently disable phones so even if you recover the phone it would still be useless in your hands. But available technology allows the original owners to disable stolen phones and activate them with a username and password if they’re recovered.

In conclusion, kill switches should be become mandatory in all phones to prevent smartphone theft, because they are guaranteed to be a secure system. It is a much more efficient idea than the one already in place and it is cheaper for consumers to use.


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