On Monday’s episode of The Majority Report With Sam Seder, UCLA public policy professor Mark Kleiman was interviewed about the pros and cons of marijuana legalization, and the future of the practice in Colorado, Washington, and beyond. Kleiman, to his credit, tackled the negative repercussions of legalization from a standpoint far more economic and academic…
Imagine if, when your smart phone was lost or stolen, all you had to do was send an e-mail or make a call to someone, and your phone could immediately be deactivated, rendered completely useless in both function and value. Not only would this protect unauthorized access to your data, it would void any resale value by would-be thieves who, until now, stood to make a few bucks stealing smart phones just like yours. How awesome would that be?
There’s just one question, though. To who do you make that phone call? Your service provider? The cops?
This is the question nobody seems to be asking about the Secure Our Smartphones initiative (SOS), started last week by Attorneys General Eric Schneiderman and George Gascon of New York and San Francisco. SOS is a coalition of lawyers, cops, and elected officials who are pressuring phone manufacturers and service providers to incorporate what they’re referring to as “kill switch” technology in smart phones. This technology would allow for the devices to be deactivated remotely, rendering them unusable and nullifying their value on the black market.
“Something on the order of 30 to 40 percent of all robberies nationwide now are robberies of smart phones. It is totally unacceptable that we have an epidemic of crime that we believe can be eliminated, if the technological fixes we believe are available are put into place and smart phones are equipped to be disabled, equipped to be ‘bricked’.
-New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman
The telecom industry has been noticeably ambivalent regarding smart phone theft. Critics say that manufacturers and providers have a vested interest in not providing “kill switch” technology, as the loss and theft of smart phones facilitates the purchase of new ones by consumers. However, it appears Apple has begun working on a “kill switch” solution and will be introducing it in iOS 7, arriving this fall. When asked about it by Attorney General Gascon at the beginning of the year, Apple neglected to mention this fact to him, and he doesn’t seem to be too happy about it.
“[At] my first meeting with Apple [in] January of this year, I was told that the technological solution to deal with this problem was not forthcoming. It’s really interesting that six months later, now we have Apple talking about it. Let there be no doubt: the industry has a moral, it has a social obligation to fix this problem.”
-San Francisco District Attorney George Gascon
When it comes to the laws surrounding digital communications these days, any use of terms like “moral obligation” by government officials – no matter how well-intentioned – starts to make me a little nervous. After all, who are law enforcement officials obliged to when it comes to how information technology like this is used? By all accounts not the American public, and certainly not companies like Verizon or groups like the Associated Press.
Obviously, a ‘kill switch’ on a cell phone is an incredibly sound idea. By removing the unit’s primary values – resale and reactivation – you’re “eliminating the economic incentives for would-be thieves”, according to the press release on the SOS website. You’re also enabling the protection of your personal data from access or retrieval by anyone in possession of your smart phone that isn’t you. The benefits cannot be denied, but the question of who wields that power has yet to be answered. If the answer turns out to be anything other than ‘the customer’, then we’ve got a problem.
Being able to ‘brick’ someone’s phone anywhere, any time is an extremely powerful ability. The implications for use in the war on terror are obvious(I can see FISA courts rubber-stamping NSA requests as we speak). The NSA is already vacuuming up large amounts of data and indexing it for easy retrieval; there stands a real risk of “kill switch” technology being used by government agencies like the NSA or the CIA to pull the plug on the flow of people’s information once they’ve gotten their fill. Given the taffy-like consistency of the word ‘terrorism’ and the most brutal manipulation of the Fourth and Fifth Amendments that I’ve even seen in in my adult life happening as we speak, I’m not sure how comfortable I am putting a power like this within reach of the grasping hands of national security officials.
A recent article on ZeroHedge.com regarding the usage of metadata by the NSA spoke about a section of the First Amendment that people don’t don’t really associate with digital communications: freedom of association.
“Indeed, the government’s spying on our metadata arguably violates our right to freedom of expression…Given the insanely broad list of actions and beliefs which may get one labeled as a “potential terrorist” by local, state or federal law enforcement, the free association of Americans is being chilled. For example, people may be less willing to call their niece calling to end the Fed, their Occupy-attending aunt, their Tea Party-promoting cousin, their anti-war teacher, or their anti-fracking uncle.”
The ACLU has this to say about metadata:
“The suggestion that metadata is “no big deal” – a view that, regrettably, is still reflected in the law – is entirely out of step with the reality of modern communications…A Massachusetts Institute of Technology study a few years back found that reviewing people’s social networking contacts alone was sufficient to determine their sexual orientation. Consider, metadata from email communications was sufficient to identify the mistress of then-CIA Director David Petraeus and then drive him out of office. The “who,” “when” and “how frequently” of communications are often more revealing than what is said or written.”
Metadata allows government officials to make incredibly revealing observations about your personal life by making inferences between date, time, and location. They know who you’re talking to, when, where, and how often. If you’re someone like me, that makes you think twice about every phone call you make, every e-mail you send, every Facebook post you read and/or share. This is where freedom of association starts to break down, and giving the government the power to ‘brick’ smart phones will only amplify that breakdown by adding a punitive effect.
The development of “kill switch” technology seems inevitable. It’s too good to pass up. Once it’s deployed, it will probably be incredibly effective in cutting down on smart phone theft, which is doubtlessly a good thing. While it remains to be seen, I just hope that the only “moral obligation” the telecom industry is willing to fulfill when it comes to the “kill switch” will be the one they have to the consumer.
(cross-posted at Soapbox Magazine)
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