Next Debate on Phones' Kill Switches: Who Turns Them On?

For about a year, more and more public officials have been pressuring phonemakers to include a “kill switch” that would allow people to wipe out data remotely and render a phone inoperable if it is stolen—something the industry has consistently resisted. On Tuesday, however, a major trade group issued a voluntary commitment from 15 major device manufacturers and network operators to offer the kill option on phones manufactured after July 2015. Among those signing onto the CTIA statement are Apple, Samsung Electronics, and all four major U.S. phone networks.

This isn’t the end of the issue. As in the case of many contentious tech services, the debate now comes down to what is turned on automatically and what is left for users to activate themselves. CTIA’s commitment alludes to a preloaded or downloadable feature, which doesn’t go far enough for everyone. “We strongly urge CTIA and its members to make their anti-theft features enabled by default on all devices, rather than relying on consumers to opt in,” said New York State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, the main voice of the kill-switch movement, in a joint statement with San Francisco District Attorney George Gascón.

A bill in Congress introduced in February would make the kill switch a requirement for any phone manufactured in the U.S. or imported into the country. Companies couldn’t charge for it (with an exception for low-cost, voice-only mobile devices). The bill hasn’t yet had a committee hearing, but Schneiderman has been beating the drum. Last week he joined U.S. Representative Dan Maffei, a Democrat who represents a district in upstate New York, as the congressman signed on as a co-sponsor of the legislation.

Phone companies have voiced various objections to the idea of kill switches—hackers could exploit them; there are better solutions solutions—but they also want to make sure they’re in charge of their own destiny. There’s nothing like proposed legislation to get the voluntary commitments flowing, and that seems to be the case here.

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