U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) recently introduced a bill that would require all cell phone users to adopt kill-switch technology. The bill aims to reduce smartphone burglary across the U.S., and despite being controversial, it’s becoming a popular concept among politicians.
Kill-switch technology allows people to wipe a cell phone’s data, render it inoperable, and disable it from being activated by future owners.
“Cell phone theft has become a big business for thieves looking to cash in on these devices and any valuable information they contain, costing consumers more than $30 billion every year and endangering countless theft victims,” Sen. Klobuchar said.
Data security is my trade, so I see the value in kill-switching, and I believe its intentions are noble. My main problem with it, however, is the indirect repercussions it may have on businesses and their reputations.
Here are four problems cell phone kill-switching could inflict upon companies of all sizes.
1. E-Waste and corporate-social responsibility (CSR) obligations
A few days after the bill was introduced, an executive at a UK-based corporate mobile recycling company — one I’ve consulted with — said, “If company phones are unfortunately kill-switched for one reason or another, they will have a hard time selling them onto recyclers. This is because most electrical recycling companies make their money by wiping the phone’s data, refurbishing them, and selling them on. A kill-switched phone is non-reusable, meaning most companies will have no choice but to dispose of them.”
This means companies will have to dump their old kill-switched phones in e-waste landfills.
As time goes on, CSR is becoming significant to companies’ reputations and can often make or break their appeal. A company with a clean CSR status will often have better PR than one without, and more consumers than ever consider a business’s social reputation before choosing them over competitors.
Companies that adopt a kill-switch system for their mobile devices indirectly risk damage their CSR reputation.
2. Loses you money
This is somewhat an extension of the previous point. Kill-switching puts businesses in a position where they may have to dispose of handsets that would usually make them money. Companies usually make a modest sum of money from selling their old cell phones to a recycler.
But with kill-switching rendering a phone worthless, most high-paying recyclers will not buy them. A working phone is a device, but a dead phone is simply scrap. In fact, companies may even end up having to pay recyclers to handle their dead phones.
Obviously the severity of financial loss would be relative to the size of the business and the amount of company cell phones they typically own.
3. Good hackers can hack the kill switch
An issue that has come up many times in response to the kill-switching bill is that hackers could use the kill function maliciously to remotely shut down people’s phones.
This may cause inconveniences for the average consumer, but for businesses the effects could be devastating.
And if hackers can hack kill-switching and take out your company’s phones, then your competitors can probably do it, too.
Let’s not forget pranksters, a problem that has plagued businesses for years is hoaxers taking advantage of their free phone numbers, simply because they can. Imagine having some, or possibly all, of your company phones kill-switched because a tech-savvy prankster wanted to impress his friends.
4. It could escalate
Using such extreme methods as kill-switch technology to combat theft begs an important question: Where will it end? Cell phones are not the only type of product prone to robbery, and they are not the only device kill-switch technology can be applied to.
Having a kill-switch option forced onto any device that is vulnerable to theft — perhaps even your car — would be a major inconvenience to consumers, but a catastrophe for corporations juggling huge numbers of devices.
Matt Carter is part of the research and communications team for UK-based technology company ECD Ltd. He is currently working with ECD’s sister company, Bozowi, on an awareness campaign to eliminate the increasing security risks within mobile electrical recycling.