Kill Switch Gives Life To Unseen Problems - Brian W. Jones

Kill Switch Gives Life To Unseen Problems

Legislature takes simplistic approach to stop cellphone thefts. 

SACRAMENTO — Law-enforcement agencies are lobbying for a supposedly easy fix to the problem of cell-phone theft by forcing phone makers to include a “kill switch” that would render the devices inoperable to thieves. An Assembly committee just passed a bill that would mandate such switches on new phones manufactured beginning next year.

The bill’s author, Sen. Mark Leno, D-San Francisco, notes that two-thirds of robberies in his city are for cell phones and that this new technology “will take away the financial incentive for thieves and end this crime of convenience.” But is a new mandate the right approach?

“This technology exists, and it’s on millions of smartphones,” argued two supporters, Los Angeles Police Chief Charlie Beck and San Francisco District Attorney George Gascón, in a column. “Unfortunately, it’s been deployed in a way that requires smartphone owners to activate it themselves. This is problematic because most smartphone users don’t know their devices have the technology or how to turn it on.”

They are arguing that manufacturers have addressed the problem, but a new law is needed because phone users are too simple-minded to activate it. But critics suggest the most simple-minded element here has been a legislative debate that has avoided some of the broader issues involving state meddling and civil liberties.

Technology is rapidly evolving and police officials and legislators probably aren’t the best people to dictate specific technological solutions to companies that have a vested interest in building and marketing the most effective devices.

“I’m not convinced the problem presented is solved by this,” said Assemblyman Brian Jones, R-Santee, who provided one of the committee’s three “no” votes. As he explained in an interview Wednesday, the government is specifying a particular type of technology, which limits the flexibility of manufacturers. By locking a specific solution in places, thieves will have an easier time coming up with a work-around for stolen phones.

Unintended consequences are commonplace whenever new laws are imposed – especially when it comes to halting highly profitable crimes. After governments cracked down on the sale of pseudoephedrine-based cold medicines to reduce their availability to methamphetamine manufacturers, the makers came up with more volatile ways of producing the drug. Cell-phone thieves will no doubt be equally clever.

“If consumers can turn mobile devices into ‘bricks,’ so can hackers,” explained the California Chamber of Commerce and various technology companies, in a letter to Leno opposing the bill. “As the L.A. Times has suggested, any technology that is mandated widely across the nation may be at a greater risk of security breaches and attacks. This represents a particularly troublesome threat when you consider the use of smartphones by government entities.”

The flip side of that threat to “government entities” is the potential to the civil liberties of Californians. The Bay Area Rapid Transit Authority (BART) in 2011 shut down cell-phone service to halt a protest. Are such actions a sign of things to come?

And it’s a double-edged sword for police. The Daily Caller reported that officials “are now using the technology as an excuse to search phones belonging to suspects without a warrant.” They fear criminals will remotely wipe their phones, so they want new powers to access everyone’s phones. Yet Jones said the committee never discussed any of these civil-liberties ramifications.

Supporters are right that cell-phone theft is a growing problem. But economist Frederic Bastiat remarked that the only difference between a bad economist and a good one is that “the good economist takes into account both the effect that can be seen and those effects that must be foreseen.” It’s no surprise that the state’s legislators wouldn’t make good economists.