Are Kill Switches Really Enough to Deter Smartphone Thieves?  

By Darren Orf on at

When California became the first US state to require new smartphones to have a built-in kill switch (a way to disable and brick a device when it goes missing) it seemed like the days of rampant smartphone theft were finally over. After all, who would sell a completely bricked iPhone to somebody, right?

As it turns out, a lot of people.

For example, listen to the insane story of the eccentrically named Rusty Redenbacher, a keg delivery guy who spoke to the Wall Street Journal about his bizarre smartphone kill switch experience:

Rusty Redenbacher was delivering kegs of beer in Indianapolis last month when his new iPhone 6 was swiped from his van.

Mr. Redenbacher went to his iCloud account and activated “lost mode” to display a message on the phone saying it was lost or stolen, with a number to call. When no one called, Mr. Redenbacher remotely erased the phone the next day. These features, often called the kill switch, transformed his phone into what he termed a “paperweight.”

Days later, though, someone did call. The person said he had bought the phone for $150 and asked Mr. Redenbacher for his Apple ID and password so he could reactivate the device.

“Are you crazy?!” 44-year-old Mr. Redenbacher, who is also a longtime fixture in the city’s music scene, remembers replying.

You almost have to admire the complete lack of social awareness that could drive someone to buy a bricked phone and then call the guy whose phone you bought.

But this isn’t really about weird people buying bricked phones (weird people are a universal constant, after all) it’s that kill switches aren’t exactly the anti-theft saviour they’ve been made out to be.

The WSJ reports that while certain cities like San Francisco and New York (and London) have been poster cities for how kill switches can deter would-be sticky fingers, other cities haven’t had nearly the explosive drop in theft, with some cities like Seattle actually seeing an increase.

So what’s going on here? A couple of things actually. People are getting duped into buying bricked phones, some are being sold for parts, and some online services claim they can restore a bricked iPhone after remotely self-destructing.

So no, kill switches aren’t going to completely make smartphone theft a thing of the past. They’re just another helpful deterrent that also does an equally great thing of protecting your data by destroying it. But as long as people want smartphones, there will be people willing to steal them—bricked or not. [Wall Street Journal]

Image: Shutterstock / NOBUHIRO ASADA