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Reality Check: The pros and cons of building kill switches into smartphones

Editor’s Note: Welcome to our weekly Reality Check column where we let C-level executives and advisory firms from across the mobile industry to provide their unique insights into the marketplace.

The Secure Our Smartphones Initiative that was announced in June has sparked a huge debate between law enforcement, political officials, carriers, smartphone manufacturers and consumers regarding “kill switches,” which effectively render any smartphone useless worldwide if a device is reported stolen.

Such a regulation brings with it many pros and cons that I would like to address. But before we delve into the arguments on each side, here’s insight on the SOS Initiative.

What is the SOS Initiative?

Spearheaded by George Gascon, San Francisco District Attorney, and Eric Schneiderman, New York Attorney General, the SOS Initiative aims to, “deter crime, eliminate the secondhand market for stolen mobile communications devices and prevent their customers from becoming the next victims.” During the closed door “Smartphone Summit” in New York City on June 13, 2013, mobile device manufacturers, including Samsung, Apple, Google/Motorola and Microsoft got together with backers of the SOS Initiative to discuss the feasibility and impact of building hardware kill switches into devices.

According to NBC News, Schneiderman stated that, “the manufacturers conceded that a hardware-based kill switch was technologically feasible. Once they conceded that, there’s really no reason not to immediately start working on installing that on all of their hardware.”

Though Schneiderman’s argument may seem straightforward enough, I think that the pros and cons of building kill switches into smartphones show that this is much more complicated an issue than it may seem at first glance.
The pros

Building kill switches into smartphones to reduce the number of smartphones stolen and sold on the black market is an excellent idea, especially when faced with the facts:

Last year, 1.6 million Americans were victimized for their smartphones.
–One hundred and thirteen smartphones are lost or stolen in the United States every minute.
–In April 2012, a chef at the Museum of Modern Art in New York was shot at point blank range by thieves who stole his iPhone – the device was later up for sale on Craigslist for $400.

A kill switch would definitely have a positive effect on thefts and violence based on reselling stolen smartphones, and, as the number of people victimized spirals out of control, now would be the time to implement such a solution – it will still take the device manufacturers time to build a hardware solution into their next generation devices. But the question of control and personal freedoms comes into play.

The cons

Personal liberties – the intersection of so many arguments in our culture – are going to be problematic here.

Device manufacturers absolutely have the capability to develop kill switches; however, to really make it work, the kill switch would need to be wired to carrier networks, such that as soon as the device’s international mobile equipment identity number shows up on the network, the device is disabled by the carrier. If we grant the carrier more controls, the government will want to step in and monitor and have access to that control – this is proven by the fact that the FBI is already upset that they cannot tap into our voice over Internet protocol calls.

This is the new battlefront and will determine whether kill switches become reality or not.

My two cents

Kill switches sound great to anyone who works in the security space, but consumers may feel that giving that type of power to a higher authority, such as a carrier who may be forced to answer to the government, is another thing.

It will be interesting to see how this plays out and how the creators of the SOS Initiative plan to determine who “owns” the kill switch. Perhaps a hybrid model of ownership is the way to ensure that privacy and personal freedoms are maintained while significantly reducing the number of smartphone thefts.

Tom Kemp is co-founder and CEO of Centrify Corporation, a software and cloud security provider that delivers solutions that centrally control, secure and audit access to on-premise and cloud-based systems, applications and devices. Under his leadership Centrify has become one of the fastest growing security vendors in the industry and has amassed over 4500 customers including nearly 50% of the Fortune 50. Prior to Centrify Kemp held various executive, technical and marketing roles at NetIQ Corporation, Compuware Corporation, EcoSystems Software and Oracle Corporation. Mr. Kemp was also an Entrepreneur in Residence at Mayfield, a leading venture capital firm. He is an avid blogger on both the Centrify website and for Forbes.com. He holds a Bachelor of Science degree in computer science and in history from the University of Michigan.

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