Follow Slashdot stories on Twitter


Forgot your password?
Government Cellphones Security

Smartphone Kill Switch, Consumer Boon Or Way For Government To Brick Your Phone? 299

MojoKid writes We're often told that having a kill switch in our mobile devices — mostly our smartphones — is a good thing. At a basic level, that's hard to disagree with. If every mobile device had a built-in kill switch, theft would go down — who would waste their time over a device that probably won't work for very long? Here's where the problem lays: It's law enforcement that's pushing so hard for these kill switches. We first learned about this last summer, and this past May, California passed a law that requires smartphone vendors to implement the feature. In practice, if a smartphone has been stolen, or has been somehow compromised, its user or manufacturer would be able to remotely kill off its usability, something that would be reversed once the phone gets back into its rightful owner's hands. However, such functionality should be limited to the device's owner, and no one else. If the owner can disable a phone with nothing but access to a computer or another mobile device, so can Google, Samsung, Microsoft, Nokia or Apple. If the designers of a phone's operating system can brick a phone, guess who else can do the same? Everybody from the NSA to your friendly neighborhood police force, that's who. At most, all they'll need is a convincing argument that they're acting in the interest of "public safety."
This discussion has been archived. No new comments can be posted.

Smartphone Kill Switch, Consumer Boon Or Way For Government To Brick Your Phone?

Comments Filter:
  • by x0ra ( 1249540 ) on Wednesday August 20, 2014 @07:13PM (#47716513)
    We all know our leader are just aiming to our best... don't they ?
  • by rsborg ( 111459 ) on Wednesday August 20, 2014 @07:19PM (#47716555) Homepage

    Why should THE MAN want to brick your phone, when instead they can just track you - that's what they want - then they can brick *you* as needed.

    • Why would they want to brick your phone? For the same reason they'll hold you for a few hours and then release you without charge, for the same reason they will confiscate your property without arrest, for the same reason they'll rough you up and then not charge you with anything. They are ways to punish people who come into their field of view for real or perceived transgressions without going through that pesky process of proving that something illegal actually happened. If this capability is realized

    • by Mister Liberty ( 769145 ) on Wednesday August 20, 2014 @09:11PM (#47717201)

      Consider what the gov would call 'emergencies'. We may call them protests, even rebellion. Suppose the next banking crisis has come around. Suppose this time things don't evolve so orderly for all those presidential advisors and what have you. Suppose these, those protests, get out of hand -- from the perspective of the gov, mind you. Yes, they would see it as rebellion. Now is the gov gonna want to track you and the rest of your 10,000 protestors? No, they just want to kill any organizational aspects of it asap and thus disperse the lot into chaos. Divide and conquer, on the street level, so to speak. I don't think I have to tell you where your phone came into this picture. Comms, pictures taken, police being filmed, free YouTube placement -- bah!, don't want any of that anymore. The gov want to be able to brick it -- even if temporarily, while at the same time having their own communications channels up and running in spiffy order all the time.
      You can seen where all this fits in, our latter days of class warfare.

      • Again, they can do this now. Turn off the cell tower. Doink, problem solved. They can also generate a list of their IMEI devices so that only those devices will work.

  • I wonder ... (Score:4, Insightful)

    by jcochran ( 309950 ) on Wednesday August 20, 2014 @07:21PM (#47716567)

    If bricking a phone would also result in any stored photographs going "bye bye".... I can think of quite a few police who would like that feature.

    • The US can now brick aspects of your phone and track your phone. Still powered on and seems to work but just cant upload in a city that night.
      The more a person wants to upload, the more interesting the user is.
      Let voice only work to see if any unlisted friends are called in real time for much needed tech help, if the media captured is described.
      A person cannot upload, but the phone still seems to work and is very trackable. A gov could then send some new software down too?
      Hoping a person of interest
  • Undo! (Score:4, Interesting)

    by zelbinion ( 442226 ) on Wednesday August 20, 2014 @07:23PM (#47716585)

    If you can un-brick the phone after it has been bricked, I'm sure someone will figure out a way to do this without involving the official channels. Theft might go down for a while, and it might never be as high as it once was, but once someone figures out how to un-brick the phone, steeling a phone will still get you something, even if you have to use it on another network or another country. Think blocking the IMEI is going to do it? There are already methods of changing or spoofing IMEI codes on lots of phones. This will stop casual theft, but like most locks, it won't deter determined thieves.

  • by markdavis ( 642305 ) on Wednesday August 20, 2014 @07:25PM (#47716595)

    >"Here's where the problem lays: It's law enforcement that's pushing so hard for these kill switches. "

    Yeah, like I have been warning people for years anytime the topic comes up. Government misuse. Security nightmare when it gets hacked. Etc. They just say I am paranoid or "tin foil" or whatnot.

    I guess I can remind them about my warnings over the last decade about the fed and big business spying on USA citizens. I am amazed at how little most people care about privacy/freedom.

    Now, let me get back to reading this letter I got from State Farm today explaining how wonderful it will be to save "up to 5%" on my State Farm car insurance if I am willing to plug in a device that constantly tracks my braking, acceleration, turns, speed, distance, and location.

    • by xdor ( 1218206 )

      Mobile phones are easy triggers. They just want a way to blanket turn off if they have security recording of a terrorist buying x brand phone at y store.

    • by AK Marc ( 707885 )
      More realistically, based on government bad acts, this would get the most use when someone needs to be "taken out" by the government. The government would plant child porn on their phone and arrest them. Political crimes are prosecuted in the US, we just say they aren't, and use one of the three felonies a day to prosecute political criminals. Get someone in prison, even for a day, and they will be ruined for life (discredited, unable to get any more jobs, etc.), and you can always blame them for an inma
  • Let's hope that the logic to brick is in some piece of code that can be subverted via a custom OS build and not something close to the radio receiver.

    Also: I will laugh really hard as soon as the blackhats release a tool to bypass security and auto-brick, and then someone heads to the nearest mall on a Saturday with a high-power radio.

  • While I actually agree that this type of feature SHOULD exist I think it is better implemented at the Operator level by them implementing IMEI blocking like every other major carrier around the world. This "kill switch" sounds like a huge target for hackers as all they need to do is break down one wall and they have access to everyones phones kill switch. Much like when China and other Rogue states infiltrated Gmail and other mail carriers years ago it wasnt through the front door but the secret back door

  • It's actually All of the Above (tm).

    It's a way for you to turn off and disable a stolen phone.

    And it's a quick way for the Thought Police to turn off all cell phones which take nasty pics and vids and audio when they go all East Germany Stasi on your First Amendment and other rights.

    By the way, in case you didn't know, even when they "turn off" wireless and cell node tracers in urban centers that could track your cell phone, they can always turn them back on with 5 minutes. So those cities that "removed" th

  • My motto's always been 'always purchase a mobile phone that can be thrown, hard, at an annoying client's head and still function afterwards'.

    In fact my current brick-like antique Nokia doesn't have a kill-switch, but it can certainly be used as one.
  • when they can just have your cell company shut down you service.

  • by Animats ( 122034 ) on Wednesday August 20, 2014 @08:09PM (#47716839) Homepage

    The next step will be a modification to the "stingray" fake cell site unit to brick all phones in an area and prevent uploading of audio or video. This will be used during demonstrations.

  • EBay. What if the seller I bought the phone from didn't like the negative feedback I left him for the phone not being described correctly and decided to be a dick and brick my phone? Giving owners that capability effectively kills much of the second and third hand market.
  • by gweihir ( 88907 ) on Wednesday August 20, 2014 @08:18PM (#47716889)

    As in any good police state, if the police does not like you, the relevant US police force will just shoot you in your home and either claim they had the wrong address, or place some drugs or hints of terror-support. Bricking phones is for children.

  • When there is civil unrest, governments have shown little hesitation to block social media sites.

    Why would anyone think that governments would show the least bit of hesitation to brick smartphones under similar circumstances?

  • This is nothing but FUD. The Guv'munt can already listen in through the microphone, read everything sent through and stored on your phone, and even use your body as an antennae to connect wireless to a nearby device. "Oh but what if the government bricks my phone!!" Stop living in fear. They can already do much worse. I'm not normally a fan of giving Law Enforcement what it wants, but in this case, their intentions are pure (ish). They don't want to have to spend time chasing down peoples stolen phones.
  • Who actually wants a kill switch? Anyone on /. at all?

    This anti-feature will be used by not just government but any suffiently motivated hackers to kill your communications. The one ostensible benefit mentioned here is anti-theft, but of course that relies on the mechanism working reliably in the first place and secondly not being circumvented by a thief five minutes after they have acquired it.

    Just like the idiotic remote car immobilisers that people who should know better are so quick to adopt. Just wa

    • by aXis100 ( 690904 )

      I want a kill switch, in fact I have one on my phone right now in the form of an IMEI blocking scheme by my telco. If someone nicks my new phone it will be worthless within a day.

      So far the schemes seem to be working fine and has been adopted across most of Europe, Japan, Korea, Australia and New Zealand. It's not actively enforced in many parts of asia and as such has become a hotspot for stolen phone sales.

  • In OZ, the carriers block at the IMEI level, so if a phone is stolen you can't use it in Australia (unless you can change the IMEI to one that the carriers recognise as valid) []

    Why doen't the USA do this as a sterting point?

    • by aXis100 ( 690904 )

      Lots of countries do this already. The US is one of the few that doesnt, and seem to be getting their panties in a knot trying to figure it out. I dont know if it's a "not invented here" issue or just a deep seated mistrust of their government.

      The fact is:
      - IMEI blocking has generally been working fine. There are supposedly methods to reflash the IMEI on *some* phones but it's quite difficult.
      - We are not seeing reports of governments abusing the feature.

  • God forbid America implement a feature that already exists in the rest of the world and has worked perfectly for many many years. Clearly copying a working implementation from some other country will doom all citizens. We don't need that "public safety" thing.

  • You don't need a kill switch built in to the phone. You just cut the service off at the carrier.
    The capability already exists.

    All this paranoia about "Oh no, the government could silence me when I'm at a protest!". They could already do it if they wanted to.
    They could ask your carrier to cut off your network access. You'd be restricted to WiFi.
    If a kill switch was built in to the phone but you've taken out your SIM and only used WiFi, they wouldn't have access to the kill switch.

    If you're paranoid, there is

    • by Jiro ( 131519 )

      Asking your carrier to cut off your network access doesn't prevent you from taking pictures and videos with the phone.

    • You don't need a kill switch built in to the phone. You just cut the service off at the carrier.
      The capability already exists.

      Denial of Service has happened in the past. I believe BART did this to try and deal with protesters. The thing is that cell phones still connect to towers even if the SIM card is removed, and you're excluding the phones that don't even have SIM cards. As has been previously mentioned we're going to start seeing stories about "undesirables" phones being wiped.

  • It's about control. Why else would the government mandate it?
  • I know that Apple introduced that feature with iOS 7 and the number of robberies of iPhones dropped dramatically thereafter...which was the point of it and a really nice thing to see.

    However, this angle on things, which I hadn't thought of, is totally on target - this is totally ripe for abuse by the NSA etc. when the correct number comes up..political or otherwise. Remember we have seen one of these agencies erase information that the Senate was looking at to audit them with, then that agencies leade
  • If the authorities want to stop you from calling, they can already tell the providers to block your IMEI. They can also track you as you move between towers, listen in to your phone calls if they want, and read your SMS messages. But seriously, the providers can already "brick" your phone - otherwise, how do you think they shut off service when you stop paying your bills? How do you think they know to charge you for your long distance calls? And similarly, the police/NSA/CIA/FBI/whomever already has all of those abilities, simply by telling the phone company to give them whatever they want.

    Enabling a kill switch is not really creating a new kill switch... It's simply giving you, the purchaser, the right to tell the phone company to block the IMEI using the same tools that law enforcement does now. It literally costs them nothing to allow, since it already exists, but, as noted in the Summary, will result in a huge drop in the number of re-purchased phones after theft/breakage... phones that are frequently re-purchased at full price, due to the multi-year contract lock-ins. This is all about money, not freedom.

  • I think that if we had to fix this, as though it's a problem, we could just create a way that the phone could have the ability to not be bricked for... what an hour or so (perhaps this feature could have it's own timer set by the user), with the same password or whatever they come up with to unbrick it later. So if you're at the place that you're using your phone and the $government wants to brick the phone, you could enter the code and the phone can then not be bricked for so long.

    If your phone is bric
  • It isn't enough to simply look at the world as is. You must consider the world with universal deployment of kill switches and fully understand likely consequences as much as possible.

    Stolen phones can be taken apart and sold for parts... Thieves doing this may well end up making more money than phone as a whole can be sold in an underground market.

    If users have ability to opt-out then anyone taking phones by force could demand victim "opt out" putting owner in increased risk of harm v. lift 'n dash encount

  • If the state wants to cut off your mobile phone access they don't need to brick your phone they just ask your carrier to turn off your services.
    First its raging against the "Walled Garden" App store, now it's "we don't need no anti-theft kill switch".
    Well maybe you don't, my techno friend, but you're in the minority.
    The majority of smart phone users do want a device that they
    a) can safely install non-trojan software from a verified & reviewed source
    b) not be mugged for carrying an expensive toy

  • They can already brick your phone today.

    Mr. Phone, meet Mr. Brick. *smash*

  • by rlh100 ( 695725 ) on Wednesday August 20, 2014 @11:10PM (#47717731) Homepage

    Why Law Enforcement in California pushed for the law was that there is a real problem with violent smartphone robberies. The victim steps away from her friends to talk on her smartphone. The thief hits her from the back so she falls forward grabbing her phone and runs. She would not see who the thief was. This is an every weekend occurrence in San Francisco and the San Francisco Police don't like this. A kill switch would make smartphone theft less profitable.

  • by Nyder ( 754090 ) on Thursday August 21, 2014 @12:02AM (#47717925) Journal

    What is going on is the governemnt/police want a way to turn off phones when protests are going on. They don't want protestors to communicate. My guess is they know that people are going to be getting sick of the bullshit the government/police pull and will start protesting more.

  • by bware ( 148533 ) on Thursday August 21, 2014 @12:46PM (#47721589) Homepage

    Or rather lack thereof.

    It's law enforcement that's pushing so hard for these kill switches.

    Right now I can walk into a T-Mobile store, buy an iPhone with cash, pay the first month with cash, and get a burner smartphone with a data plan. No ID, no name, no address, no credit check.

    If this law is implemented, the ability to buy a smartphone anonymously goes away. You'll have to show an ID. For this law. How else will they know whether you're the person who can request that that phone be bricked?

    This isn't about theft, the police don't give a shit about theft. If you don't believe that, try reporting one. This is about removing the anonymity of burner phones.

"For a male and female to live continuously together is... biologically speaking, an extremely unnatural condition." -- Robert Briffault