Rationalizing Bad Behavior? Carriers Reject Kill Switch for Stolen Smartphones

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.

Privacy for Children: July 1 COPPA Update

If you have an internet-using child under 13 in your home, chances are they’ve come to you saying something like, “Can you please check your email? I cant use [insert website name here] until you respond to your email!  Pleeeeeeeese!”

Copyright Alejandrocaicedo – “Kids studying at RIA centers”

Been on vacation and at a conference for the past two weeks, so I’ve been off the grid. But I have a new post up about the childrens’ privacy regulation updates that took effect yesterday. The post is over at faithandsafety.org, a site focused on family friendly tech use that is a joint venture between the US Conference of Catholic Bishops and the Orthodox Archdiocese of America.

via Tightening Privacy for Children: July 1 COPPA Update – Blog Post – Faith and Safety.

Recommended Posts on Power, Culture, and Privacy

Lots of talk about privacy lately. Much of it has been spurred by the completely unsurprising revelations about NSA spying. But we were primed for that by the discussion surrounding Facebook Home and Om Malik’s widely noted reaction (“Why Facebook Home Bothers Me“) back in April.

Server room in CERN (Switzerland)

Server room in CERN (Switzerland) (© Florian Hirzinger)

Over the past day, I’ve read two standout posts that I’d really recommend. At the New Yorker, Jill Lepore has an engaging piece entitled Privacy in an Age of Publicity on the history of our modern notions of privacy. She connects a number of disparate points, including the shift in our meaning of “mystery,” early ideas about publicity from Jeremy Bentham (of the oft-discussed “panopticon” ), the development of the notion of a domestic sphere of life, and the legally foundational 1890 article on privacy by Samuel Warren and Louis Brandeis. By the end of the article, it made a whole lot of sense why people just aren’t that bothered by the NSA’s practices. As she put it:

There is no longer a public self, even a rhetorical one. There are only lots of people protecting their privacy, while watching themselves, and one another, refracted, endlessly, through a prism of absurd design.

That’s the cultural side of things. But there’s also the power side of things. Dave Winer takes up that side (“The Quiet War In Tech“) noting:

In th[e] war [of information], the governments have more in common than they have differences. …What they want is to keep order, I really believe that. The order that keeps the rich rich, and more or less ignores the challenges we all face in keeping our species alive on this planet. I understand the sentiment. …If you were President of the United States, and you saw a certain probability of [tech collapse] happening, you’d re-up on the side of preserving order. …And in that context, it’s not surprising that our, the people’s, information access systems are really weak compared to the ones the governments have.

By now it should be obvious that the big tech companies are not our friends. They’re more like the government than they are like you and me. Maybe not their fault, maybe they didn’t see it coming, but I doubt they’d deny that they’re there now.

Winer goes on to spin out some important implications for programmers and tech users, so it is worth a read.

Great insights.

The Fairphone—A Good Start at Ethical Hardware

Casey Johnson at Ars Technica (“Fairphone” looks to give power back to customers):

The “Fairphone,” a phone that purports to approach smartphone design in the most ethical way possible from every conceivable angle, opened for preorders last Friday. The phone uses only conflict-free resources wherever possible, it has an open design, and it is marketed in a transparent way to customers.

Starting small.  Android only, Europe only, and about $400.  As a product, it probably won’t have a huge impact in and of itself. Hopefully it will serve as a very successful proof-of-concept that we can do tech in a way that both respects everyone involved (trying to improve practices along the way) and is financially viable.


© Fairphone

Viagra, Patents, and Responsibility to Society

From Michael Geist at his excellent blog on intellectual property law and policy in Canada:

The Supreme Court of Canada this morning [November 8] shocked the pharmaceutical industry by voiding Pfizer’s patent in Canada for Viagra. The unanimous decision provides a strong reaffirmation of the policy behind patent law, namely that patents represent a quid pro quo bargain of public disclosure of inventions in return for a time limited monopoly in the invention.

Disclosure is… a crucial part of the patent bargain.

The court clarifies that this involves not only a description of the invention and how it works, but rather a much more practical level of disclosure “to enable a person skilled in the art or the field of the invention to produce it using only the instructions contained in the disclosure.” In this case, the court finds that Pfizer failed to provide sufficient disclosure.

Seems that, rather than doing one patent for the drug, Pfizer filed for two separate patents for the drug’s components. As a result, the invention could not be reproduced with the description in a single patent. Pfizer “‘gamed’ the system.”

What I find interesting is that the Canadian Supreme Court so clearly states what is implicit in our own founding documents. Patents and copyright are granted in order to provide an incentive for people to take on the risky business of innovation. At the same time, they are time-limited so that all can benefit from the good that is created in the long run. Advantage leans early on to the creator and later on to the society. That’s the balance. Uphold both goods to seek the common good.

Here in the US, that balance has tilted toward the creators’ side. In a real practical sense, that’s why people download music illegally and mail order drugs from Canada. Nice to see a neighbor seeking the balance.

Back to School, with Metaethics Courtesy of Luciano Floridi

So, things have been very quiet around here at Rewiring Virtue for the last 6 weeks.  As it turns out, last year I was on sabbatical to focus on my writing. That gave me lots of time to write articles and such, but also blog.  Six weeks ago, I headed back to the classroom.  You can see what a dent it put into my writing.  Quite a gap.

Now that we are at midterms, it’s time I got back at it. And, like any good teacher, I’ll distract you by giving you an assignment.  Luciano Floridi has written a great, nuanced, and complex moral analysis  (via Michael Geist) of the recently failed Anti-Counterfieting Trade Act (ACTA-pretty much an US/EU version of the failed SOPA/PIPA legislation here in the states).  Floridi is a philosopher and longtime technology ethicists.  He is also the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization’s (UNESCO) Chair in Information and Computer Ethics at the University of Hertfordshire.  He has been doing thoughtful work for a long time, and is one of the leaders in the field.  The essay, entitled “ACTA – The Ethical Analysis of a Failure, and Its Lessons,” is worth reading (if a bit complex).

Floridi is a philosopher, so a good part of his job is making distinctions.  In this realm, there are a couple of really valuable things that he does in this paper.


%d bloggers like this: