The Unwired Medic

Teaching EMS providers & other public safety pros about using mobile tech to improve their practice, patient care, continuing education, scene safety, general entertainment, & productivity.

The Smartphone Killswitch


New York’s Attorney General and San Francisco’s District Attorney are among the consumer and tech groups pushing smartphone manufacturers to install a killswitch into new smartphones to stave off the epidemic of theft. The article in the NYTimes blog cites some impressive numbers regarding loss and theft and the cost in a single year.

I support the idea completely. If you root your phone (like an Android, for instance) you void your manufacturer warranty, even if you aren’t interested in a custom ROM (phone operating system). This prevents great tools like Cerberus and Avast! from installing into the root of the phone.

These two apps, for instance, help locate your phone and remotely wipe the data, allow you to capture camera and audio feeds, and send alarms and alerts to your phone. You can use them without root access, but if the thief or lucky guy who “found” your phone performs a hard reset and wipes all your stuff off, those apps go with it. If your phone is rooted, you can set up those apps to remain in the system, hidden, so even a phone reset won’t get rid of them as you can still track your phone down.

This new killswitch idea will go further and “brick” your phone. That means that it cannot be recovered and resold as a usable phone. The phone would only be good for parts, like the touchscreen, battery, and casing. The phone would be non-functional. The problem with GSM services, like AT&T and Rogers, is that those systems don’t track the phone’s Electronic Serial Number (ESN) or IMEI (another serial number), so a thief can pull your SIM card out and drop in a different one and that phone is now theirs. The killswitch will look past the SIM and find the phone by its serial number and allow you to squash it.

So why does it take a law to make this happen? Why don’t the manufacturers already do this? Simply, it’s another expense. We already pay more for smartphones than we pay for some laptops and tablets! If they’re going to do it, it will be either because legislation forced them to do it or because the consumer has demanded the feature. So, if you want the killswitch on your future phones, you can either contact your elected representation and make it an issue, or you can contact the phone manufacturers and ask them for the feature.

I agree with one sentiment… the technology to do this has been around a long time so the manufacturers are complicit in not doing more to prevent the thefts. Actually, I think they stand to make more money as a result of a killswitch as it will tremendously reduce black and gray markets for smartphones. Consumers will have to go back to the legit dealers to get replacement phones. That means more phones sold and more upgrades are likely to occur. It’s a wonder it hasn’t happened yet!

One drawback… don’t make your ex mad if they have a way to activate your killswitch!

Read the article where I learned about this here: NYTimes blog

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