back to article US Senate bill would mandate 'kill switch' on all smartphones

All mobile phones sold in the US will have to include free software that can remotely wipe and disable the device if it is stolen, should a new bill introduced in the Senate becomes law. "Cell phone theft has become a big business for thieves looking to cash in on these devices and any valuable information they contain, costing …

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So I can flog my old mobe off on Craigslist, disable it, and then demand even more money to re-enable it. Brillant!

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Buyer beware

If you don't purchase in a way you can get your money back if the product isn't what was advertised, it is your own fault. Ebay has buyer protection that covers this. Craigslist is the wild west, so there is no protection, but generally people meet for transactions so you would have to make sure the phone was reset to factory defaults before handing over payment.

Honestly, this is such an obvious thing, I don't know why anyone would be against it, but I think forcing laws is a bit extreme. Why in the world would you make a law requiring this for phones, but there is no law requiring a LoJack for a car? I should think that auto theft is a bigger problem in terms of the number of deaths related to auto theft as well as the total economic loss.

If phone theft became less of a problem for iPhone owners due to the activation lock, I think market demand would make it a standard feature on Android. Or if people aren't that worried about it (few think crime will happen to them) then there will be no market demand and things will stay the same. Either way, no law is required.

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Re: Buyer beware

Android device manager does let you lock your phone if you have the August update for Google Play.

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Re: Buyer beware

"Honestly, this is such an obvious thing, I don't know why anyone would be against it..."

Ok, let me fill in a couple of reasons:

First, although this will change the behavior of criminals, it is likely that it will have minimal deterrent effect in the long run as thieves will simply learn that they need to quickly shield a stolen phone to keep it from being wiped.

Add to that, the new vector for hackers to create havoc in our daily lives. Eventually, they'll figure out how to compromise it and you'll reach for your phone one day to find it's dead, quite possibly at the time you need it most to make an emergency phone call. As mentioned in another thread, this has already happened to reporter Matt Honan though that was more social engineering than coding trickery.

This is a knee-jerk (read: not well thought out) reaction to a problem that's getting media attention.

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Re: Buyer beware

Highly unlikely that any lock+wipe mechanism will stop the phone being useful for emergency calls.

Well, unless the people proposing the laws are even more terminally brain-dead than people give them credit for.

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Re: Buyer beware

"Highly unlikely that any lock+wipe mechanism will stop the phone being useful for emergency calls."

As I understand it, the idea behind this is to make the phone useless to the thief. That would mean "bricking" it which would have to be irreversible or, aside from protecting personal data, there would be no point. Bricking means no functionality which would include emergency calls.

One other thing that occurs to me, even if the phone is bricked, it would still have many parts, in particular the screen, that would still be valuable on the black market.

This legislation is a fool's errand.

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Re: Buyer beware

One other thing that occurs to me, even if the phone is bricked, it would still have many parts, in particular the screen, that would still be valuable on the black market.

Oh indeed. Probably the fate of many stolen phones is an advert on Fleabay two weeks later for cheap screens, or a casing, or sensor glass, or a battery, or whatever.

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Control

Nothing to do with crime, it's a Government initiative on Control.

I bet there is real excitement in some governmental services lots of smiling and hand rubbing if they could get their hands on this.

Call me cynical but I don't think I am.

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Anonymous Coward

If they make a mistake

If they make a mistake, get it wrong and wipe your communication devices, how do you contact them to try and sort it out!

By post?

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Re: Buyer beware

Oh indeed. Probably the fate of many stolen phones is an advert on Fleabay two weeks later for cheap screens, or a casing, or sensor glass, or a battery, or whatever.

Which correlates well to a lot of stolen cars. If the car isn't stripped (sometimes on the spot) for black market parts, it's being hauled away intact to be sent overseas. Either way, Lojack would do jack about it (since the strippers would quickly locate the beacon and send it elsewhere and the exporters would move the car out of range).

Similarly, stolen phones are either stripped down and sold for parts or quickly stuffed in a shield bag and sold overseas where the kill signal won't reach.

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terminally brain-dead

Given that there are 3rd party apps which you can install to perform this function, the legislators are just as brain dead as those in the UK (and now trying their luck here in OZ) who demand to filter the internet.

They want to legislate against everything, except the biggest threat in the world, end-user stupidty.

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Megaphone

The other shoe drops...

Now there is a handy mechanism for putting the kibosh on free speech.

Megaphone because that very soon that will be about the only medium that doesn't have a kill switch with a spook's paw resting on the handle.

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Big Brother

Re: The other shoe drops...

As I said in the last El Reg article on this: The system is fine as long as *we*, the public have control over the "brick code" and decide when it's used.

If the State gets their hands on it, however...

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Re: The other shoe drops...

They will just criminalise the use of the megaphone.

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Re: The other shoe drops...

"They will just criminalise the use of the megaphone."

With a kill-switch they can prevent free-speech from happening, with that kind of law they would have to wait until the free-speech had happened before they acted... It would be easier for them to make it illegal to possess a Megaphones.

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Hubris

The hubris of politicians who think that by creating a law some crime will be stopped. Politicians are powerful but not that powerful. Most of the time politicians are useless.

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Re: Hubris

You should replace the word hubris with supidity. Most politicians have no clue about the bills they pass (very few even read them), let alone bills concerning technology. They are driven by lobbists, money and getting re-elected (in fact, that's they main objective),

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Can we...

"US Senate bill would mandate 'kill switch' on all smartphones"

Can we decide which senator we want the smartphone to kill?

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Black Helicopters

The Senate will name a responsible federal agency to run this

I'm sure the NSA will be happy to take this on!

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Completely foolproof

Or will we be seeing the ultimate DOS attack? Seriously, it's going to be irresistible for some hackers.

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Alert

Could be useful.......but.......

Hmm. I'm dubious about this, bearing in mind the exposed nefarious activities of the NSA and GCHQ. This facility won't get abused, presumably - oh no, not much! Could be I'm getting a tad cynical, I suppose but I would imagine they would love to get their hot sticky hands on an easy way of bricking phones!

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Uh ...

... how long, exactly, will it take for TheGreatUnwashed[tm] to figure out how to brick JRandomCellUser's telephone?

I'm guessing about two weeks, max.

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Anonymous Coward

Three letter agencies

Guess who other than the owner of the phone will get access to those kill switches.

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Land of The Free

I'm shocked at the lack of outrage that I am seeing.

To give authorities the ability to kill the communication device of anyone they choose is absolutely suicidal for freedom of speech.

Also, this gives the ability of authorities to stop all communication from a certain physical area. Say for example where there is a protest, they can just kill all phones within a mile radius. Or, kill all phones in area X, that arent specifically phone models used by police or military.

Outrageous. The US really is a country of two halves, and unfortunately the insane half always seems to get it's way.

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Re: Land of The Free

Also, this gives the ability of authorities to stop all communication from a certain physical area. Say for example where there is a protest, they can just kill all phones within a mile radius. Or, kill all phones in area X, that arent specifically phone models used by police or military.

They've been able to do that for years, no killswitch required. Cell phones are pretty useless without CELLS. Governments simply shut down the cell towers and kill the reception. I recall that's a technique Iran used (that and killing Internet access in the affected area: thus killing WiFi and femtocells as well). Police and military don't need cell phones since they traditionally use two-way radios whose frequencies are already reserved for them (Know why the US can't use Band III? Military had dibs on the frequencies already).

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Re: Land of The Free

I'm not sure you're thinking through what you've said. All the things you cite as risks/threats already exist and have for at least a decade. Every single one of them.

A couple places in New York City, that I know of, and big swaths of DC, have mobile service disabled on demand. Here in DC they can block service street by street, with very little bleed over, and service by service and they do so on a regular basis if somebody 'important' is coming through the city. While I do not know this, I see no reason why they wouldn't have the ability to disable service by phone make/model.

It is well known that Federal Law Enforcement has portable devices to track individual phones and disable mobile service. El Reg has done several stories on those. The devices are already at protests and events where the afore mentioned 'important' people will be attending events. Capital Hill Police (who actually have nationwide jurisdiction - that's who comes if you threaten a Congressperson) have serious equipment to manipulate mobile service and fortify the offices and homes of Congresspeople in danger.

Now, don't let any of that let think that I trust our government wouldn't play shenanigans if they wanted to. I am certain they would. But they don't need software on handsets to do that. Furthermore, if you flip to the section in your book called 'Caveats, Limitations and Restrictions on Inalienable Rights' you will see that all FCC licensed broadcaster must surrender spectrum control and assist federal agencies in cases of civil defense, war, disaster, deceleration of martial law or other threat, on demand, for an indefinite period without receiving a warrant or court order. It then goes on to describe the 17.336 million things a broadcaster must do and how.

Now open your copy of the PATRIOT ACT and just dig right in to the parts on communications and you can get a sampling of what's required to activate those FCC provisions. What? You don't see any requirements? That's right, just a list of agencies and offices that can issue those orders which are designed to be dynamic in case of emergency.

I'm not sure how old you are, but it wasn't too long ago when our Navy would sail around countries we didn't like and broadcast Voice of America propaganda over their radio networks, it was hilarious. Castro actually wrote a letter asking them to stop. We did it quite a bit in Spain and Italy as well. Anyway, that technology hasn't gone away. It has just been upgraded.

I'm at Naval Station Norfolk on a regular basis and they regularly have comms drills where mobile service and regular radio is disabled selectively to test defense readiness if regular communications are taken off line.

In short, when Apple was just a fruit, or the label that had the Beatles, and Motorola would have committed suicide before they got into icky retail markets all the laws, provisions and technologies to manipulate wireless broadcast anywhere in the world, including inside the US was already in place. You didn't think those FCC licenses were just about revenue or market protection did you? You're signing up to provide technical resources for US militaries and Federal Law Enforcement agencies, on demand.

It is not an efficient use of time, effort or money to go to a judge in case of an imminent threat, so they don't have to do that. It would actually be dumb if they did. There's also no reason to get into a willy waving contest with some CEO, so they don't have to do that either. Fortunately, those mechanisms haven't ever been used to full capacity but they sure as hell don't need buy in from overseas handset manufacturers to do it.

While some freedoms and liberties are being squeezed, for sure, you missed the boat for a communications infrastructure not 100% government controlled. That boat sailed in 1946, and it ain't coming back. Worry about something else, nothing to be done about this.

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Re: Land of The Free

"Also, this gives the ability of authorities to stop all communication from a certain physical area."

OK, as it was pointed out, the US authorities have this capability already but that's not the issue.

This "kill switch" gives the ability of authorities to stop all communication from a particular phone and, most importantly, without having to go through any kind of accountable process.

You have an inconvenient whistleblower problem? Just arrange a phone call by one of your operatives to Verizon or whatever relevant provider...

"Hello, ah, my name is Snowden, Edward, yeah, ah, you know, my phone's just been stolen by that, ah, big buy, yeah. Can you, ah, turn it off?"

It may not seem like much, but if you are chasing down a hot leak, those few initial minutes/hours that you can disrupt the target's communications might just mean the difference between a PR disaster and a complete non-event - and with full plausible deniability.

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FAIL

But it was never intended...

Hmm. Seems I've said that before

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FAIL

What good does bricking a stolen phone do?

There is a huge point being missed here, in thinking that if a stolen mobile phone is useless then nobody will bother to steal a useless phone. People don't steal mobile phones because they want a phone for themselves. People steal mobile phones because they don't want you to have a phone.

It doesn't have to work after it's been stolen. The sole purpose of the theft was to deny you a phone, not to acquire a phone. Mobile phones are already cheap enough not to be worth the bother of stealing, and most of your personal data really isn't all that interesting (and besides, those with the necessary wherewithal probably already have it all anyway).

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Re: What good does bricking a stolen phone do?

I don't know about that. People have been mugged and killed apparently JUST for the phone (as in nothing else was stolen), which is then fenced.

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Re: What good does bricking a stolen phone do?

Yeah, I think you've seen too many cop dramas and/or spy thrillers. There are approximately 73 trillion better ways to deprive someone of communications that don't involve grabbing a tracking device monitored from orbital and terrestrial stations and running back to the forgotten bank vault you use for a hideout. That just doesn't make any sense. I know we're talking about street crime here, but even most of them aren't severely mentally handicapped.

It is also evident you haven't spent any time around desperate people, but that's nothing to be ashamed of. Here in the US there are guys every couple of blocks who will give you cash for anything you bring to them. Really, most anything. You'll know if you're at one of those places because they've got far, far too many electric mixers (for baking), small toaster ovens and several thousand bookshelf stereo speakers sitting around. You grab anything you can, go to the guy, then go buy your drugs.

(I went to university in Hoboken, NJ and had one of those guys on the same floor as my apartment. Dude always had whatever you needed to save a trip to the store. He had boxes and boxes and boxes full of common spices for cooking too. My drugs were delivered and a paid the balance monthly, didn't need the cash guy)

Go to a pawn shop here in the US and look in their dumpster. It'll be full of silver plate utensils, shitty DVD's, VCR's, golf balls, camping gear. All sorts of garbage that is obviously stolen, but the pawn shops take anyway because those people bring in good stuff sometimes too.

Anyway, while there are certainly more advanced operations that deal in nice stolen electronics, they aren't associated with the snatch & grab people. They go to jail about 20 times a month and nobody making real money associates with them.

The plot you've outlined is about 43 steps beyond what that incredibly fleet of foot meth addict is thinking. It's also one of the reasons cops tend to suck so much at catching petty criminals. Rational thought and logic is never effective against irrational, illogical desperation.

Will the kill switch reduce thefts? Maybe... Eventually. But please refer back to the irrational, illogical desperation part above.

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Re: What good does bricking a stolen phone do?

Unless the bricked phone also somehow permanently damages its battery and screen the bricked phone will just be ripped apart and sold as parts.

I'm all for providing users with methods to brick their own devices but this bill doesn't seem to have really thought through the problem.

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Isn't there IMEI blacklists or soemthing alrady?

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They're not synced between countries. IOW, steal phone, sell overseas, profit.

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How Much Does Free Cost?

I hate it when laws say something has to be free. Everybody just gets screwed. If they set any kind of limit it would be much less painful, at least in the US.

There's not much that US businesses hate more than the government telling them what to do and to do it for free. I know of zero cases where such a mandate has proven effective. They will disguise unnecessarily large cost increases out of sheer spite.

The '3rd Brakelight' mess here in the States is a good example. It was awful. One of the very first jobs I had as an independent engineering consultant was working out a way for an auto manufacturer to get the required light into new cars that were already on their dealers lots. Details aside there were endless variables and rather confusing legislation to deal with and it couldn't add any cost for the consumer or the manufacturer. Ultimately I decided the best option was getting rid of sun visor vanity mirrors, indicator/brake lamp function checks (little doodads on the end of the front fenders and in the rear view mirror that told the driver if an exterior lamp had failed) and remote passenger window controls on all but their most expensive models and deleted the toolbag that held the hubcap pry bar and jack handle (which caused them to rattle, annoyingly).

So the consumer saw no increased price, but they lost (or had turned into options) some functionality that would still be useful today and three smallish manufacturers had to close and about 300 people lost their jobs. After my client paid the penalties for early contract termination the whole thing turned into a margin boost in following years. Customers got screwed though.

Now, compare that with the FUCS fee (or whatever it is called) that carriers charged to pay for mobile friendly 911 systems. That was capped from Day 1 and it actually didn't cause a terribly huge outcry from carriers (it's completely different when they do start really pitching a fit). The fee offset any costs and every US business likes collecting Federal fees on the governments behalf. You can collect those fees all day, but only have to send them to the govt once a year. The other 364 days the money stays on your books as revenue. It's a good deal for everyone (as far as govt compliance goes anyway).

It is just stupid to say 'do this at no cost' to any business. Give them something to work with and they'll still whine, but they'll do it. But the funniest part is the people that say 'do this for free' spend millions in tax dollars on internal propaganda to further their own careers. Let's have them do their jobs for free. They sure do like reminding us they are patriots, serving their country. Yeah, fuck off, so was my dad and the only perk he got was an infection from a Navy hospital.

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Bricking is about more than temporary comm-blocking

Imagine a peaceful protest. Imagine disabling communications. OK, now imagine if even _one_ protester manages to record the ensuing police actions and get the physical evidence out of the area. _That_ is why the "proper authorities" need to totally disable the devices. Putting your phone in a Faraday pouch may protect it from being damaged, but then you can't record.

Of course Cameras are also frequently stolen, so they will need kill-switches too.

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$30 billion eh?

So smart phone theft is costing every man woman and child in America about $100 a year?

I smell made up bullshit

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Re: $30 billion eh?

Include all possible side effects and incidental costs and you can get a really big number really easily.

For example, the entire mobile phone insurance industry, the police time, the victims time spent pudding* about in the police station and replacing the phone...

* Autocorrect, but it seemed appropriate!

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Re: $30 billion eh?

^ do you do copyright math too?

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This is going to be completely pointless, you can change IMEI number and its practically impossible to prevent a software initiated kill switch from being disabled. The phone will jus be flashed with a non standard version of the OS and it will work again just fine with no kill switch present.

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dumb question but...

Wouldn't bricking the handset also brick the ability to track said handset via whatever flavour of app the loser (geddit?) downloaded from the crap store?

Thus depriving Reg hacks of risible stories about "dumb as" thieves taking selfies in their y-fronts and uploading, only to be collared by the filth once the original owner has splashed said pictures across the twattersphere/facebollock playpen...

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Re: dumb question but...

The Apple version of it requires you to enter a password to re-activate the phone. I believe you can still track it. As far as I can see, the Google version works in much the same way.

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Re: dumb question but...

Plus what if the phone never gets the kill signal in the first place because it gets shielded before the kill signal is ever sent? Then it's sent someplace where the kill signal isn't supported?

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