Mikulski wants all cellphone makers to offer ‘kill switch’

Sen. Barbara Mikulski discusses her bill to help smartphone and mobile devices users at the WMATA maintenance center in Landover Thursday. She wants cellphones sold in the U.S. to have a kill switch, which allows users to delete personal information if their device is lost or stolen. (WTOP/Mike Murillo)

LANDOVER, Md. – If you are an iPhone user, you already have the ability to remotely wipe sensitive data or information from your phone if you lose your phone or if it is stolen.

But that isn’t the case for all cellphone brands, whose users risk losing much more than a list of phone numbers if their phones go missing.

“We asked them to voluntarily do it, but Apple’s the only one that has,” says U.S. Sen. Barbara Mikulski.

The Maryland Democrat wants to see all phone makers offer the feature known as the kill switch. And she’s introduced legislation, which she says will also reduce the theft of smartphones, to make the tool widespread.

“We want to require cellphone manufacturers or those who import them to the United States to include kill switch technology,” Mikulski says.

The option would “give the consumer the ability to deactivate their home or to remove personal data off their phone,” Mikulski says.

“The safety and security of my constituents is a number-one priority for me,” Mikulski said when making the announcement at the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority’s Carmen Turner Maintenance and Training Facility. “Now, Metro and even beyond Metro is threatened by a new crime, the snatch crime of stealing these personal devices.”

Metro Police Chief Ron Pavlik says his agency welcomes and supports technology solutions that could reduce snatch and grab-style thefts of electronic devices, a problem facing other transit agencies too.

During the past year, Metro has seen a 50 percent increase in the theft of electronics, Pavlik says.

Mikulski says the only way to stop this crime is to eliminate profit for criminals.

“It is estimated that in the United States of America, this is a $30 billion crime industry. That is four times the budget of the FBI,” she says.

For some, just losing their phone is a major set back.

“That single mother working three jobs trying to stay in touch with her kids, this is a big deal,” she says. “What’s also a big deal is not only the device itself but the personal information on it.”

Some opponents have claimed a move like this could make it easier for terrorists to take control of and deactivate phones, a claim Mikulski rejects.

“Your individual PDA will be more likely a crime of opportunity for one of our young people then for a terrorist to come and get you,” Mikulski says.

Her bill is similar to legislation proposed by Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., which Mikulski says she supports.

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