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Every smartphone should have a kill switch

Smartphone Theft Prevention Act would require all phones to have the privacy-protecting technology

Published: May 01, 2015 01:00 PM

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A kill switch would let you lock down personal information if you lose your smartphone.

Smartphones keep getting smarter, allowing you to store your financial, health, and other sensitive information all on one device. But in the event your phone is stolen, there isn’t always a smart way to deactivate your phone or delete its wealth of data. And that missing "kill switch" just makes your smartphone more attractive to thieves looking to resell not only your device but also your personal information.

Smartphone theft is a growing problem, with the Federal Communications Commission reporting that nearly one in three robberies involves cell phone theft. Consumer Reports estimated that 3.1 million smartphones were stolen in the United States in 2013 alone, nearly twice the number of thefts we projected for the previous year.

Consumers Union, the policy and advocacy arm of Consumer Reports, believes that every smartphone should be equipped with a kill switch that allows you to deactivate the phone and remove all information from the device. By making stolen smartphones inoperable—and ultimately unsellable—they’re less attractive to criminals.

While there have been voluntary industry commitments to provide antitheft tools for smartphones and state laws to better protect consumers, we’re advocating for a national standard that would allow all consumers to easily deactivate their phone if stolen.

Read "In the Privacy of Your Own Home," our special report on privacy in the era of the Internet of Things.

That’s why we’re strong supporters of the Smartphone Theft Prevention Act. The recently reintroduced legislation, sponsored by Senators Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.), Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), and Mazie Horono (D-Hawaii), would require all phones sold in the United States to include kill switch-type technology free of charge that would allow the consumer to wipe personal data off a phone, render the phone permanently inoperable to anyone but the owner, and prevent it from being reactivated on a network by anyone but the owner.

We especially like that the bill would require smartphones to prompt consumers to activate this switch during a phone’s initial setup. A companion bill was also introduced in the House by Rep. Jose Serrano (D-N.Y.).

In addition to our endorsement, the Smartphone Theft Prevention Act has received support from a diverse set of stakeholders, including law-enforcement officials, district attorneys, and safety advocates who all agree that these features ought to be universally available.

As smartphones play an ever-increasing role in our everyday lives, it is critical that consumers have access to the tools that help protect their information. This legislation would go a long way toward removing the incentives for criminals to target your phone, and cracking down on the secondary market where millions of stolen devices are sold each year.

Update: Controversial for-profit college close down

The for-profit college chain Corinthian Colleges is closing its 28 remaining campuses following a year of fines and allegations of falsified job placements, predatory lending schemes, and abusive debt-collection tactics. Consumers Union has pressed for tougher standards for for-profit colleges such as Corinthian. We are asking the Department of Education to help students who were harmed by Corinthian, which once operated more than 100 campuses under the names Everest Institute, Wyotech and Heald College. We are also supporting legislation introduced in Congress to strengthen student’s legal rights in the wake of the Corinthian closure.


This feature is part of a regular series by Consumers Union, the policy and advocacy arm of Consumer Reports. The nonprofit organization advocates for product safety, financial reform, safer food, health reform, and other consumer issues in Washington, D.C., the states, and in the marketplace.


Read other installments of our Policy & Action feature.


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