Who should be able to flip a kill switch on a phone and why?


Last week’s, well I guess you could call it “mini-drama”, between Samsung and Verizon turned out to be not as fascinating as I thought (and secretly hoped) it would be. As it turns out Verizon backpedaled quite quickly once it realized it was authorizing ticking bombs to continue to function. But it did raise an interesting question of power. Most accurately, the kill switch, whether it should exist, and just who should get one. There are four potential players on this field, so let’s take a look at them one by one, shall we?

Uncle Sam

The government is probably the first candidate one thinks of with this kind of power. Appropriately, it’s the first one I’m eliminating from the list. I have said in the past that I’m not concerned about my government trying to control me, because if it ever gets to the point where I have to be concerned about it, I’m pretty much already screwed. That being said, a kill switch on a smartphone is not a key I’m all that eager to hand over. After all, I live in a country with a reasonably less-than-scary government – OK fine, even that is debatable of late – but some of our readers do not have that luxury. If I’m not willing to let my government kill my phone, you can bet good portion of the world is also less-than-inclined to do so. So, let’s take them off the list.

The maker

That leaves us with three bodies to discuss – the OEM, the carrier, and the individual. Put in a different way – the one who made the phone, the one who makes it work, and the one who uses it. Let’s start with the OEM. As a company dedicated to making hardware, it is probably in the best position to understand when a kill switch is needed – a rare circumstance indeed. As the maker of the phone though, I would have to think that it sells away its rights to the phone as soon as the item is bought and paid for. Sure, an OEM may know of a dangerous issue, but I would have to think there are processes in place to address such a situation – such as a recall.

The enabler

The carrier is the one who makes the phone work. In the case of phone use a carrier is essentially just a middle man who is allowing a customer to use their device on the carrier’s infrastructure. It’s true that the carrier does have to review software that runs on phones to ensure that the hardware and software of the phone plays nicely with the carrier’s unique hardware and software in the towers. After all, if a phone doesn’t work, there’s not much the carrier will be able to do to support the device. But that’s where the carrier’s responsibility stops.

The user

Finally we get to the user – the person actually using the phone and in the case of the Note 7, the person at risk and putting others at risk. Here lies the quandary about the kill switch. Should a user even be allowed to kill a phone at their discretion. There are some protections in place in most operating systems that allow a user to remotely disable, lock, or wipe a device. Ultimately, the users under most circumstances are the ones with the most to lose in the event of a kill switch being used.

In this editor’s opinion, I tend to argue that the user is ultimately responsible for the device. This may seem like a no-brainer to some, but it’s not necessarily the most straightforward issue I’ve ever written about. In the case of the Note 7, I agree with Samsung’s tactics in getting Note 7s off the street. Note 7s are dangerous – not just to the people who have them, but to those around them as well. I’m all for personal responsibility, but as I said earlier today to a colleague of mine, “If there’s anything that 12 years in support has taught me it’s that if you give a user the chance to screw up, they’re going to screw up.”

Wait, wait

So, am I contradicting myself? Perhaps a little. I still don’t think kill switches should be allowed by anyone but the user. But I also believe in the concept of “the spirit of the law” and in this case there are hundreds of thousands of people out there that are tap dancing on a landmine, and people could get hurt because of them. So perhaps this is the exception that proves the rule.

But that’s what I think. What about you? Should an OEM, or even a carrier get to decide when to kill a phone. Should a user get to decide not to kill a phone, even if it’s dangerous? That’s what we’re here to decide, so let us know what you think down below. Discussion is the birthplace of ideas. So discuss!

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About The Author
Adam Doud
Adam joined the tech world after watching Jon Rubenstein demo the most epic phone ever at CES 2009. He is webOS enthusiast, Windows Phone fan, and Android skeptic. He loves the outdoors, is an avid Geocacher, Cubs/Blackhawks fan, and family man living in Sweet Home Chicago, where he STILL hosts monthly webOS meetups (Don’t call it a comeback!). He can be found tweeting all things tech as @DeadTechnology, or chi-town sports at @oneminutecubs. Read more about Adam Doud!