Four Democratic senators -- Amy Klobuchar (Minn.), Barbara Mikulski (Md.), Richard Blumenthal (Conn.) and Mazie Hirono (Hawaii) -- on Thursday introduced a bill that would make it possible to remotely wipe every cellphone in America -- in an effort to curb smartphone theft.
Proponents of a kill switch argue that if every phone can be remotely rendered useless, there will be no motivation to steal them. Apple has actually already implemented a kill-switch like feature on its iPhones, as of the iOS 7. Samsung has also said it's working on a similar feature.
But critics say making it compulsory to enable a remote wipe of personal data off every phone could open the door to serious abuse.
"Sometimes these proposals don't get enough critical inspection," said Parker Higgins, an Electronic Frontier Foundation activist. "It needs to be in the control of the user...if we make this part of the system of the police procedure on phone theft, it can raise all kinds of problems."
(Update: A copy of the bill provided to The Post says only a phone’s owner, or people authorized specifically by a phone’s owner, are allowed to activate the kill switch.)
Higgins said government officials or law enforcement agencies could overstep their use of this technology. And hackers could take the credentials of a phone's owner and remotely wipe the device -- that's exactly what happened to tech reporter Mat Honan, who had enabled Apple's wiping feature.
The idea of installing kill switches on phones is actually a very popular idea. California state Sen. Mark Leno and San Francisco District Attorney George Gascón introduced their version of a "kill switch" bill earlier this month, and have given their support to the new Senate bill. A similar bill has been under discussion in Minnesota.
And there's little doubt that cellphone theft is a problem. The Federal Communications Commission has estimated that cellphone thefts cost consumers $30 billion every year, and incidents are rising across the country.
Lawmakers say that the industry has been dragging its feet in doing its part to fight the problem.
“It has been very troubling to see the rise in smartphone thefts across the nation, particularly since these crimes can be violent," Hirono said in a statement. “By making this function widely available to mobile phone users, hopefully we will be able to deter thieves and prevent serious crimes.”
Kill switch supporters also argue that finding ways to protect against theft is particularly important given how much data we now store on these devices. “Smartphones have infiltrated virtually every aspect of our daily lives, but there's nothing smart about devices that attract violent crime when the technology to end this epidemic is readily available,” said Gascón in a Thursday statement.
The critics of the Senate bill say it makes sense to give consumers some protection within the device, but it's also important think about the potential downsides.
"Cellphone theft is indeed an epidemic, and it's worth looking at technical solutions to it," said Seth Schoen, senior staff technologist at the Electronic Frontier Foundation. "Unfortunately, there's a great risk that measures that are meant to be used against thieves can also be used against the legitimate owner -- whether that's the ability to track the phone's location or the ability to remotely disable the device."
The Senate bill says explicitly that it wants to give consumers the choice to use the switch, meaning that not everyone has to enable the option. But, depending on how the switches are set up, it might be nearly impossible to completely deactivate such a feature.
"The California bill does specify that the kill switch has to persist through a hard reset of the phone," Higgins said. "It's hard to imagine how a user would opt-out."