A 23-year-old woman who was murdered for her iPhone 4S has become a symbol for a growing chorus of advocates who want the wireless industry to install “kill switches” on all smartphones to make them useless to thieves.
It’s too late to save Megan Boken, who was talking on her phone in St. Louis’ Central West End when a thief wanting her device shot her in the neck and chest in August 2012. But lawmakers, attorneys general and law enforcement officials hope to keep that from happening again as the incidence of smartphone theft skyrockets.
“Such a beautiful, young, vibrant woman,” said Boken’s cousin, Bridget Weinstein of Overland Park. “Since this has happened to Megan, I’ve read about other incidents that happened to other families. I didn’t realize it was such a problem. Something needs to be done to make cellphones not so desirable to steal that people are being targeted.”
Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton last week signed a law to require kill switches on new smartphones, and similar bills have been filed in other states and in Congress. The California Senate passed such a bill earlier this month. Thirty-one attorneys general, including Missouri’s Chris Koster, have joined a coalition called Secure Our Smartphones.
The smartphone industry has been reluctant to embrace universal kill switches, citing security concerns, but it has volunteered to install technology in new phones that would allow consumers to opt in for a kill switch.
That is not enough for some advocates who want kill switches to come as a default feature on all new smartphones so thieves would realize there is no point in stealing them.
“This technology exists,” Los Angeles Police Chief Charlie Beck and San Francisco District Attorney George Gascón wrote in an op-ed last month.
“Unfortunately it’s been deployed in a way that requires smartphone users to activate it themselves (upon buying the phone). This is problematic because most smartphone users don’t know their devices have the technology or how to turn it on. Moreover, thieves can’t tell which phones have the technology enabled and which don’t, which leaves everyone vulnerable to victimization.”
If the kill switch hasn’t been enabled and the phone is stolen, it’s too late to shut it down.
The switch is software or hardware or some combination of both that allows the owner to shut down a mobile device remotely if it is lost or stolen. It could also remotely wipe the owner’s data. It could prevent the phone from being reactivated without the owner’s password, but it also could allow data to be restored if the phone is recovered.
Consumer Reports estimates that 3.1 million cellphones were stolen in the United States last year, almost double the number that were stolen in 2012.
The Kansas City Police Department reports cellphone thefts rose 20 percent from 2009 to 2013. The Federal Communications Commission says roughly 40 percent of all robberies in larger cities involve cellphones.
The Federal Communications Commission estimates the problem cost consumers $30 billion in 2012.
Besides monetary value, smartphones store vast amounts of often vital and sensitive personal and professional information.
Many smartphone thefts are crimes of opportunity, such as when a person absentmindedly places the phone on a bar or a table at a restaurant.
They also can be violent or even deadly. A few months before Megan Boken was killed for her phone, Hwang Yang, a 26-year-old cook for the Museum of Modern Art in New York, was shot and killed for his iPhone while walking home from his train stop.
Stealing smartphones can be lucrative. Thieves can wipe the memories clean and then sell the phones on the black market, which is often overseas.
According to Secure Our Smartphones, iPhones can be worth $2,000 in Hong Kong. Gascón and Beck said Columbian drug cartels now traffic in stolen smartphones.
Critics say that wireless companies earn billions of dollars a year from people replacing stolen smartphones and from phone-theft insurance revenue. They suggest that is a powerful motive for the industry to drag its feet on kill-switch technology.
The smartphone industry, represented by CTIA The Wireless Association, says the safety and security of wireless users is its top priority, but the industry argues it needs flexibility to ensure innovation will not be thwarted by a government mandate, or worse, a quilt of state laws.
By mandating a single solution, the industry says, government could make the phones vulnerable to a different menace.
“It’s important that different technologies are available so that a ‘trap door’ isn’t created that could be exploited by hackers and criminals,” Steve Largent, president of CTIA, said on the organization’s website.
In addition, the Electronic Frontier Foundation fears that kill switches could be abused by government or law enforcement to trample on civil liberties.
The industry group supports federal legislation introduced in 2013 that would toughen penalties for smartphone theft. The industry also created a database so that phones reported stolen will not be reactivated by carriers in the U.S.
In the face of continuing pressure, the wireless industry last month announced a “voluntary commitment” that smartphones manufactured after July 2015 for sale in the U.S. will offer, at no cost to consumers, an anti-theft tool that will render the phone inoperable to an unauthorized user.
The Secure Our Smartphones coalition called that an important step but noted it still requires consumers to take action.
Apple already offers an activation lock that starts working as soon as the Find My iPhone feature is turned on in iOS 7. If the phone is stolen the owner can put it into lost mode via iCloud.
A similar reactivation lock is available for some Samsung Galaxy phones.
The Minnesota law says new smartphones sold in that state after July 2015 “must be equipped with preloaded anti-theft functionality or be capable of downloading that functionality.”
Identical bills filed in the U.S. House and Senate, called the Smartphone Theft Prevention Act, say wireless companies “shall make available” the kill-switch technology at no cost to consumers.
In neither case are kill switches explicitly required to be enabled by default when a phone is purchased by the consumer.
The California bill would require all smartphones sold in that state to be shipped with a default setting that prompts the user to enable the kill switch. A consumer could still opt out but the expectation is most would not.
Two men are now in prison for murdering Boken, a Wheaton, Ill., resident who was in town for an alumni volleyball tournament at St. Louis University. She had just left a friend and was walking to her car with her new iPhone.
“And two 18-year-old kids were driving around looking for a victim,” said Weinstein of Overland Park. “And they saw her and they picked her and said she was going to be the one. She was shot twice and killed.”
How to avoid phone theft
The wireless industry offers these tips:
Password protect your phone and change it regularly. Go to “settings.”
Write down the model number, serial number and International Mobile Equipment Identifier. Find the IMEI by dialing *#06#. If the phone is stolen, report it immediately to the police and the carrier so it can be placed in a database.
Enable the Find My iPhone activation lock or the reactivation lock available on some Samsung Galaxy phones.
Consider theft insurance.
Be aware of surroundings. Don’t walk and text.
Don’t put the phone down in public.
Don’t lend the phone to a stranger.