Smartphone Kill Switch Could Become Federal Law

There is no doubt that mobile devices are an integral part of our daily lives, making their potential loss all the more detrimental. Aside from using smartphones to communicate with friends and family, find restaurants, and check email, they serve as repositories for more and more sensitive, personal information.

The thought of losing one to the wild is enough to make your stomach drop. Device theft today not only puts users at risk for physical harm, but also puts their personal and digital identity in danger. Mobile device theft is becoming a huge problem, accounting for approximately 30% to 40% of all robberies in major cities nationwide. And notably, the desire for these stolen items is leading overseas where many devices and a large amount of data are ending up. Our recent McAfee Mobile Security Report found that the apps on your phone also prove to be bountiful when it comes to information about you and your device. Most Android apps collect information, including wireless carriers, unique device ID, and global positioning system (GPS) data—so imagine if that information ended up in the hands of phone thieves!

With this challenge in mind, state and federal legislators have been coming together to push through a new initiative that would require mobile phone manufacturers to install a default smartphone kill switch—allowing users to disable functionality remotely. Last summer, San Francisco District Attorney George Gascon and New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman launched a “Secure Our Smartphones” initiative, encouraging the mobile communications industry to adopt this technology in order to eliminate the incentives for criminals to target and sell stolen smartphones. Apple has already added their own technology that mimics a kill switch to devices running on iOS 7, but users must choose to switch it on rather than the other way around. More than 100 U.S. officials have joined the kill switch effort so far, and this push comes on the heels of a surge in phone thefts coupled with the inability of other initiatives—like stolen phone blacklists—from stemming the tide.

However, despite the mounting pressure from law enforcement and government organizations, major U.S. mobile phone carriers have been hesitant to embrace a kill switch requirement. Some telecom industry groups like the CTIA (The Wireless Association) cite the potential risk for hackers to take advantage of kill switch technology. Mainly, if all devices were made with this capability, there is the possibility that it could be used maliciously to disable devices for spite or targeting specific groups of users—like government employees. Additionally, they warn that for this technology to be effective, it would also have to be reversible in the event of an error, which means that criminals could figure out how to undo the kill switch on stolen devices.

Regardless of the arguments on either side, the fact is that device theft is a mounting safety issue that shows no signs of slowing down. Remote locking and data wiping features are key for protecting personal information stored on mobile devices, but a larger initiative to dissuade mobile phone-related crimes is also crucial. Until this proposed kill switch law or another is actually put into place, users must take on the task of keeping their information private, protect their identity and finances, and making their phones as unappealing to thieves as possible.

Below are some ways that you can better protect your devices now:

  • Be aware of your surroundings. Device theft is often a crime of opportunity and criminals are always looking for victims who are distracted. When using your mobile devices in public try to be more aware of what and who is around you, avoid bringing out your device in certain places, and keep a tight grip on them when in crowded areas.
  • Put a PIN on it. Always protect your mobile devices with a PIN or passcode. While it may not stop devices from being stolen in some situations, it will certainly make it more difficult for thieves to get access to the information on them. In the event your device is just misplaced temporarily, a PIN code will also keep out any potential snoopers from getting in.
  • Know what you keep on your device. The possibility of mobile theft happening to you may seem farfetched, but it is important to think about what you currently have stored on your devices. Your smartphone may be the conduit for everything in your life, but linking it to bank accounts, personal and work emails, and home systems may put you at increased risk in the event your device is lost or stolen.
  • Forgo auto-login and secure your mobile apps. While it may be convenient to be able to one-tap your way into banking, chat, and other important mobile apps, the instant availability also puts you at risk in the event your device is lost or stolen. Taking the extra step to log in each time as well as putting additional security on certain apps—which you can get with McAfee Mobile Security for Android—can help keep data private even in the worst case scenarios.
  • Protect your device with mobile security software. While almost nothing can bring your device back after it has been stolen, installing security software with remote lock and wipe capabilities will at least give you piece of mind that the information on it is secure. McAfee Mobile Security for iOS and Android is totally free and offers these services and much more to mobile device users.



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