Smart kill switch?

Nevada Attorney General Catherine Cortez Masto's office is drafting legislation to require “kill switches” on cell phones sold in the state. The switch allows the owner to remotely disable the phone if it is stolen, creating a disincentive for thieves, but it also allows others—such as the police—to do the same.

The Cortez Masto draft may be unnecessary by the time it is submitted to the Nevada Legislature. Given the huge size of the California market—the state makes up just over 12 percent of the population of the United States—it's possible that phone manufacturers will build the kill switches into all models rather than provide switch-free versions to states that have no such requirement.

The attorney general is allowed to request up to 20 drafts of legislation from the legislative bill drafters. But Cortez Masto is termed out and will be out of office by the time the legislature goes into session next year, so it will be the decision of her successor whether to continue with the kill switch measure. Candidates for the job are Republican Adam Laxalt and Democrat Ross Miller.

Mobile carriers say the switches will make smart phones more susceptible to hackers and the Electronic Frontier Foundation, in a letter to California legislator Susan Bonilla, opposed the legislation, saying the technology was already available on an optional basis and the legislation “is not explicit about who can activate such a switch. … [M]andating a solution through legislation is not the right approach.”

But Consumers Union supported the legislation, less for theft prevention than because the smart phones contain so much private information. The organization conceded that kill technology is already available but said its inclusion in devices should be mandatory by law. “Every smart phone should be required to have a ‘kill switch' that lets you wipe personal information off your device,” it said in a prepared statement. “What's more, you should be able to disable your phone remotely to make it inoperable to thieves. And if you're fortunate enough to get your phone back, it should be easy to reactivate.”

On Aug. 11, 2011, during protests on Bay Area Rapid Transit stations against a police killing of a homeless man, BART disabled cell service to four stations to hamper coordination of the protests. That angered some residents who joined the subsequent day's protest. It also sparked a Federal Communications Commission investigation of BART and prompted the California Legislature to pass a law limiting official interference with cell transmissions.

It's not just community groups whose work could be disrupted. The Columbia Journalism Review described the problem for photographers and reporters: “You're a journalist covering a street protest, and the local police chief doesn't like the photos you're tweeting from your iPhone. One shows an officer arresting a minister. Another shows a protester surrendering as an officer chokes him. Yet another shows a teargas canister landing near a group of young people. The batons and rubber bullets come out, and the chief remotely disables the journalist's iPhone, rendering it useless.”

The blockage may not stop reporting of a news event, but it slows things down until law enforcement gets all its ducks and spin doctors in a row and may well get its account of an event out before on-the-scene observers. In California, that would likely be illegal under the post-BART protest law, but what are the chances that local prosecutors will charge the police with a crime? In Nevada, there is no crime to charge.