PhotoLast year, Samsung developed a “kill switch” app that smartphone owners could use to remotely “brick” their phones (i.e., “Make them stop working, so the phone becomes little more than a fancy-looking brick”). The idea was that if enough stolen smartphones were transformed into bricks, thieves would stop stealing them.

And yet, last December we reported that “Verizon, AT&T, T-Mobile, United States Cellular Corporation, and Sprint have prohibited Samsung from pre-loading the app, and New York Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman wants to know why.”

The phone companies' motivations might remain forever a mystery, but for whatever reason, on April 4, Schneiderman and San Francisco District Attorney George Gascón issued a joint statement announcing that Verizon and US Cellular (no mention of the other companies) had decided to allow the apps, which smartphone owners can activate for free.

Congressional action

As of now, no company is legally required to offer free kill switches, as Verizon and US Cellular intend to do. However, ever since February there's been a bill before Congress, HR 4065, which if passed into law would make kill switches mandatory on all phones sold in the US.

The full text of the bill is on the Congressional website here, and the official summary of the bill is here.

Though the summary is, of course, much shorter than the full bill, it's still written in fairly dense legalese. Here's the summary plus translations into standard everyday English.

Smartphone Theft Prevention Act - Amends the Communications Act of 1934 to require commercial mobile service providers to make available on mobile devices a function that an account holder may use remotely to: (1) delete or render inaccessible all information relating to the account holder that has been placed on the device; (2) render the device inoperable on the global networks of such service providers, even if the device is turned off or has the data storage medium removed; (3) prevent the device from being reactivated or reprogrammed without a passcode or similar authorization after the device has been rendered inoperable or has been subject to an unauthorized factory reset; and (4) reverse any such actions if the device is recovered by the account holder.

Translation: phones need to have kill switches which can render them completely useless to thieves, even if the stolen phone is stripped clean of all data.

Prohibits a mobile device from being manufactured in the United States or imported into the United States for sale or resale to the public, unless the device is configured in such a manner that a service provider may make such remote deletion and inoperability functions available on the device.

Translation: Any phones made or sold in the US will have to have a kill switch.

Allows the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to waive such requirements with respect to any low-cost mobile device that: (1) is intended primarily for voice-only mobile service, and (2) may have limited data consumption functions focused on text messaging or short message service.

Translation: the kill-switch mandate would apply only to smartphones, not to old-fashioned cell phones which can only be used to make phone calls and send text messages. [Presumably, that's because thieves don't bother stealing “dumb phones” anyway; they have little to no resale value on the black market.]

Prohibits service providers from charging a fee for making such remote deletion and inoperability functions available.

Translation: the kill switch must be free to end users.

Last week, AG Schneiderman's office put out another press release announcing that Schneiderman joined Congressman Dan Maffei (D-New York) in co-sponsoring the bill.

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