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.

Avoiding the Near Occasions of Sin

Greetings. I hope this post finds you well. It is September and school is back in session. I took a couple months off this summer from blogging and following the tech news. It can be so easy to get so wrapped up in the chase—keeping on top of breaking news, commenting, figuring out something good to say, writing it up, seeing if people respond. But I’m not ever sure if it is helping me become a better thinker or just a better chaser.  So, I thought some disconnection was in order.

At the end of July, Matt Gemmell (Working in the Shed) put well when he noted:

The internet isn’t to blame – it’s us. We’re weak, and our natural tendency is to feed that weakness rather than struggle against it. Some people are more prolific than others, but the boundaries don’t lie where we think they do: context and self-discipline are much, much more important than your personal pace or ability. The difference that a creativity-conducive environment can make is profound.

I personally don’t seem to be able to choose to ignore Twitter, or email, or BBC News when they’re available. I can manage for short periods, but sooner or later I’ll give in. What I can do, though, is remove the temptation. Counting the chocolate bars in the cupboard doesn’t work half as well as just not buying any. I know it, and so do you.

There is a great old school term for this in the Catholic tradition: “near occasion of sin”.  Something is a near occasion of sin when it draws you into doing something that is going to be bad.  The near occasion might be good or bad in itself. (Chocolate is one thing, but meth is quite another.) But it is really more about the particular combination of me/you and that thing leading to doing things that separate you from a balanced and connected life. Chocolate isn’t one of mine, but Cheetos are.

Somehow, it seems like the net is a massive collection of near occasions.

Ideally, time off can help create the space and energy we need to create better habits. But, at the same time, we can only really create good habits once we are back in contact with that thing. We only feed the strength when I struggle with the things that make us weak.  In the long run, I have to figure out how blog without the chase.

I think the two months off helped, but we’ll see.

Hacking Your Machine, 1910 Style

Mac OS 7 Startup Screen

Mac OS 7 Startup Screen (via operating-system.org)

I spend way less time these days tweaking and fixing my computer than I used to. Back in the early-90s, I spent hours each week messing around with on my Macs trying to find the optimal configuration for the control panels and extensions.   I gathered custom system software that optimized my machine for home and work, but it was always a challenge figuring out how to get rid of conflicts and make sure that I still had enough ram to run things.  Watching those icons scroll across the bottom of the screen as they loaded during startup. And when they went to a second row, I was in heaven!

I always figured that I just grew out of that “tweaker” phase. These days, I like stuff that just works. (That’s not code for Apple. I let our temperamental Jetta go and have a much less fun Honda now.)

So I was intrigued by a fascinating account at the MIT Technology Review of a “Turn-of-the-Century Road Trip” from Newton, Massachusetts to Portland, Oregon in an Oldsmobile. And by turn-of-the-century, I mean the 20th century.  1910, to be specific!

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Rodney King In Life

It has been reported widely that Rodney King was found dead yesterday at the bottom of his pool. For those of us over in our early forties, the video of Rodney King being beaten literally senseless by police officers in Los Angeles will stand as one of the truly brutal and horrifying media experiences of our lives. But it was also one of the first of what we now call “viral videos”. Before YouTube, before the web, the Rodney King video was everywhere. Everyone had seen it. And because it was shot by a bystander, it it was also one of the first major events of citizen journalism of the digital era.

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Bulgaria: Skeletons treated for vampirism found

Via Bulgaria: Skeletons treated for vampirism found at PhysOrg:

(AP) — Bulgarian archaeologists say they have unearthed centuries-old skeletons pinned down through their chests with iron rods — a practice believed to stop the dead from becoming vampires

According to Bozhidar Dimitrov, head of the National History Museum in the Bulgarian capital, Sofia, two skeletons from the Middle Ages were found in such a state last weekend near the Black Sea town of Sozopol.

He said Tuesday that corpses were regularly treated in such a way before being buried in some parts of Bulgaria, even until the beginning of the last century. Widespread superstition led to iron rods being hammered through the chest bones and hearts of those who did evil during their lifetimes for fear they would return after death to feast on the blood of the living.

Sounds a bit odd for a blog on tech, right.  But here’s what I wonder: how many of our seemingly awesome technologies will seem like these iron rods in a couple of centuries?

 

If You Can’t Innovate, Intimidate: Lobbying and LightSquared

Exactly what is wrong with the big business-Washington relationship:

Wireless startup LightSquared has laid off nearly half of its workforce and filed for bankruptcy, but isn’t parting with its extensive network of Washington lobbyists.

Philip Falcone and his investment firm, Harbinger Capital Partners, invested billions of dollars in LightSquared’s plan to build a high-speed wireless network that would have served more than 260 million people, but federal regulators denied it permission to launch in February over concerns that it would interfere with GPS devices…

Last quarter, at least 14 different firms lobbied for LightSquared, according to disclosure forms. The company spent more than $2.8 million on lobbying in 2011, according to records, roughly quadrupling 2010’s total of nearly $700,000.

LightSquared developed a technology that tends (in tests) to interfere with GPS.  Rather than fix it, why not just find friends in high places?

There is no right to success in business.

viaBankrupt wireless firm LightSquared cuts employees, but not lobbyists, by Brendan Sasso and Kevin Bogardus at Hillicon Valley.

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