A Kill Switch for Cellphones Could Save Consumers Billions of Dollars a Year

The Citizen's Guide to the Future
April 1 2014 12:14 PM

A Kill Switch for Cellphones Could Save Consumers Billions of Dollars a Year

smartphone
If you could "kill" your smartphone remotely, it might not be so valuable to theives.

Photo by Shutterstock.

Americans spend a lot of money on cellphones, and I’m not just talking about upgrading to the latest iPhone. According to a recent study at Creighton University, Americans spend about $4.8 billion per year on cellphone insurance, and $580 million per year to buy new phones when theirs get stolen.

Now, if cellphones came with a "kill switch," users could control their devices remotely after they were stolen, and the Creighton study estimates that consumers could save about $2.6 billion per year. The study, conducted by statistician and data scientist William Duckworth, was based on a February survey of 1,200 smartphone users.

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A movement to make kill switches standard has been gaining momentum, and legislation that would require manufacturers to include kill switches in handsets shipped to the United States has been proposed in the Senate, House of Representatives, and California State Senate. But cellphone carriers are reluctant to add kill switches, possibly because they would lose out on the money consumers spend to replace stolen phones.

Yet the groundswell of support is coming from consumers themselves as well. Duckworth's survey showed that 99 percent of respondents thought cell carriers should make kill switches an option on phones. Ninety-three percent felt that this service should be free, and 83 percent said that such a feature would reduce theft.

Duckworth told IT World, "I view losing a credit card as a similar frame of reference. If it is stolen or lost, I can call the credit card company and get it canceled and they can issue a new one. There is safety there. My smartphone has tons of information and accounts in there, so the idea that I could call and say 'kill it' is a very reasonable thing."

Currently CTIA—The Wireless Association has a database that prevents phones that are reported stolen from being reactivated. But the database only covers certain countries, so stolen phones still work if they're taken somewhere else. At this point, it just seems like kill switches make good sense, and they're already starting to proliferate through things like Apple's Activation Lock feature in iOS 7. If billions of dollars are going down the drain trying to protect stolen phones, we basically have nothing to lose at this point by trying out some kill switches.

Future Tense is a partnership of SlateNew America, and Arizona State University.

Lily Hay Newman is lead blogger for Future Tense.

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