CTIA – The Wireless Association has announced an agreement with mobile companies to support a software kill-switch for all phones manufactured for the US market after July 2015 as a ‘baseline anti-theft tool’ that will either be pre-installed or downloadable by customers, but some argue that it doesn’t go far enough.

Wireless Association Mobile kill-switch

“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 attorney general Eric T. Schneiderman and San Francisco district attorney George Gascón in a joint statement, reports Thomas Claburn for InformationWeek. “The industry also has a responsibility to protect its consumers now and not wait until next year.”

Kill-switches gather evidence, erase personal info, and brick the phone

The main purpose of a mobile kill-switch is to erase data from a stolen phone so that it can’t be used either for identity theft or further harassment, and to make the phone non-operational so that the thieves don’t benefit from their crime. More sophisticated versions might also report their GPS location to the owner or the police, take snapshots with the phone’s camera for evidence, or even sound an alarm that rings whenever the phone is turned on.

Many smartphones already support a software kill-switch if users want to install one, so the agreement to have a free downloadable tool isn’t that much of a change. Changing to an opt-out system that enables the tools by default would mean that they are far more likely to be available when someone reports a mobile theft to the police. The reason people like Schneiderman and Gascón want such widespread use is because they hope it would deter thieves from taking mobile phones in the first place.

Widespread use of kill-switches is a liability for political activists

The danger in having something that can wipe your data or brick your phone pre-installed is that it can be hacked and used to target people for any number of reasons, ranging from random trolling to political attacks. There are also concerns that if such software became ubiquitous police or some other government agency might want to use it to help them disperse political rallies by turning off organizers’ phones and preventing people from communicating with each other. Given what we know about NSA snooping, such concerns can’t be waved off as unrealistic.

The more extreme version of this, a hardware kill-switch, would be even more worrisome because it couldn’t really be turned off. Mobile phones have become so central to how people work and live that the power to isolate people seems easy to abuse.