We're often told that having a kill switch in our mobile devices - mostly our smartphones - is a good thing. At a basic level, that's hard to disagree with. If every mobile device had a built-in kill switch, theft would go down. Who'd waste their time over a device that probably won't work for very long?
Here's where the problem lays: It's law enforcement that's pushing so hard for these kill switches. We first learned about this last summer, and this past May, California passed a law that requires smartphone vendors to implement the feature. In practice, if a smartphone has been stolen, or has been somehow compromised, its user or maker would be able to remotely kill off its usability, something that would be reversed once the phone gets back into its rightful owner's hands.
I don't think many would argue that having a kill switch in a mobile phone is a bad thing, per se. It's already been proven that it can reduce theft. However, such functionality should be limited to the device's owner, and no one else. This mechanic isn't new, of course - we took a brief look at Google's solution last fall - but its caveats could soon get worse.
FOSS Force makes a couple of good arguments about these potential downsides, with the overarching one being that law enforcement could make use of these kill switches for their own benefit. With the advent of the video recording feature on our smartphones, we've all gained the ability to prove what went on in an important situation, and it goes without saying that in some cases, had user video not been shot, the outcome or verdict could have been completely different.
"If the owner can disable a phone with nothing but access to a computer or another mobile device, so can Google, Samsung, Microsoft, Nokia or Apple. Google and Apple have already demonstrated their ability to remove software from all devices using their respective operating systems. If the designers of a phone’s operating system can brick a phone, guess who else can do the same? Everybody from the NSA to your friendly neighborhood police force, that’s who. At most, all they’ll need is a convincing argument that they’re acting in the interest of 'public safety.'"
A couple of years ago, such statements might have come off as overly paranoid, but ever since Edward Snowden's NSA leaks, it seems completely probable. What's also probable is that a market of phones without a kill switch could rise, and likewise, many may choose to root the phone they already own to disable the kill switch feature.
I don't know about you, but I find the potential for abuse here to be a little scary. Given the option, would you opt-out of having a kill switch in your mobile phone, even if it meant that you'd be out of luck if it were stolen?
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