In April 2012, I posted about the efforts to create a national stolen cell phone database. Those concerned with trying to reduce the lure of cellphones for thieves wanted to create a database that carriers would use before activating a used phone to make sure that it had not been stolen. The New York Times has reported that the database hasn’t slowed thefts “in part because many stolen phones end up overseas, out of the database’s reach, and in part because the [phone's unique numerical] identifiers [used to identify phones around the world] are easily modified.” Oh, and the database has not really been implemented yet.
So, what to do next?
One idea has been a “kill switch” that would disable any phone upon request. Sounds great. Your phone is stolen, so you don’t just erase it, you make it unusable before it is wiped and reused. But as the AP is reporting (via Terry Collins in Carriers Reject Kill Switch for Stolen Smartphones at Time) that:
Samsung Electronics, the world’s largest mobile phone manufacturer, has proposed installing a built-in anti-theft measure known as a “kill switch” that would render stolen or lost phones inoperable, but the nation’s biggest carriers have rejected the idea, according to San Francisco’s top prosecutor.
District Attorney George Gascon said Monday that AT&T Inc., Verizon Wireless, United States Cellular Corp., Sprint Corp. and T-Mobile US Inc. rebuffed Samsung’s proposal to preload its phones with Absolute LoJack anti-theft software as a standard feature.
Huh? It seems like such a simple idea.
CTIA-The Wireless Association, a trade group for wireless providers, said it has been working with the FCC, law enforcement agencies and elected officials on a national stolen phone database scheduled to launch Nov. 30….says a permanent kill switch has serious risks, including potential vulnerability to hackers who could disable mobile devices and lock out not only individuals’ phones but also phones used by entities such as the Department of Defense, Homeland Security and law enforcement agencies.
Fair point. So, you have to figure out how to do this well. In the meantime, the carriers are nobly trying ensure the safety of consumers and citizens alike. Not my usual perception of phone companies, but ok.
Or, not ok.
Samsung officials told the San Francisco district attorney’s office in July that carriers were resisting kill switches, and prosecutors have recently reviewed emails between a senior vice president at Samsung and a software developer about the issue. One email in August said Samsung had pre-installed kill switch software in some smartphones ready for shipment, but carriers ordered their removal as a standard feature.
“These emails suggest that the carriers are rejecting a technological solution so they can continue to shake down their customers for billions of dollars in theft insurance premiums,” Gascon said. “I’m incensed. … This is a solution that has the potential to end the victimization of their customers.”
Perhaps they are not so noble after all. Turns out lots of people benefit from the stolen phone economy. Carriers sell insurance with high deductibles and monthly fees. Manufacturers sell more phones. Thieves make money. Buyers get cheaper phones on the street, or perhaps get phones at all when they end up overseas. And Google gets to brag about increased activation stats for the new phones people have to buy. Lots of people benefit from stolen phones. It is important not to underestimate that momentum.
Except, of course, for the people who owned them. And it’s not as if this can’t work. Indeed, it’s already working. As Chris Welch at the Verge noted:
A “kill switch” would be Android’s answer to Apple’s Activation Lock, a new safeguard introduced in iOS 7 that lets users remotely deactivate a phone and wipe its memory. But even after an iPhone has been reset, the original owner’s account credentials must be entered before it can be used again. Authorities hope this will dissuade thieves from targeting Apple products. For its part, Google allows consumers to track and remotely secure Android smartphones, but they’re not quite locked down to the same degree.
So far, Activation Lock and LoJack seems to be doing well, as the AP story noted,
In July, [San Francisco] prosecutors brought federal and state security experts to San Francisco to test Apple’s iPhone 5 with its activation lock and Samsung’s Galaxy S4 with LoJack. Treating the phones as if they were stolen, experts tried to circumvent their anti-theft features to evaluate their effectiveness, and that work is continuing. One Silicon Valley technology security expert said he thinks Apple’s activation lock is the first kill switch that meets law enforcement’s desire to protect iPhone users and other smartphone manufacturers should follow suit.
So maybe it isn’t a crazy idea after all.
The Best Intentions?
One of the trickiest bits in the moral life is that doing the right thing is not necessarily enough. It is important, no doubt. You can’t do the right thing without, you know, doing the right thing.
Yet, the point of the moral life is not simply to do thing that uphold values, but rather to become the kind of person who upholds values in everything you do. Being a person of virtue is more than just following the rules. It is about being transformed so that everything one does flows out of a desire to enhance human flourishing and into concrete acts that that make that a reality. The good person is one who does good things because they want to.
This distinction between means (what we do) and intention (why we do it) is fundamental to understanding the character of our actions. And it is something we all know. We can see it operating in the old standby, “the road to hell is paved with good intentions.” Sometimes you try to do the right thing, but go about it the wrong way.
So, too, can we do the right thing for the wrong reasons. Many people would harbor some reservations about a guy writing a huge check to charity in order to garner some great press for himself. We might like the fact that the charity has the money, but think the guy was a jerk. And the donor would defend himself based on the good consequences. But still, the act serves as a means for selfish self-promotion.
This situation seems to me to be the same thing. Carriers put forward a front of concern for the consumer—hacking!—while really working to serve their own interests. The stated intention is noble, yet masks the real intentions. Heck, if we use a purely utilitarian stance, the many positive consequences of phone theft may really favor protection of the stolen phone economy! Even if millions of former phone owners lose in the process. And we lose a bit more of the rule of law. Plus some respect for the right to private property. “A small price to pay…”
But attending to the good life reminds us that there is more to life than consequences and more to who we are than the benefits that accrue. Sometimes being a good person—or a good company—means doing things that cut into the bottom line. Sometimes we have to take a chance and do something even though we don’t know how that it will end well. We have to actually be the person, not just look like them.