Mikulski Says Cellphone ‘Kill Switch’ Fears Baseless, ‘Conspiratorial’

‘Reasons are being invented’ to stop new technology mandate, senator says.

Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., chats with members of the Metro Transit Police Department after a speech about cellphone theft on Thursday, Feb. 20, 2014, in Landover, Md.

Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., chats with members of the Metro Transit Police Department after a speech about cellphone theft Thursday in Landover, Md.

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Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., tells U.S. News there’s no reason to fear legislation that would force cellphone makers to incorporate a “kill switch” in devices, allowing stolen or lost phones to be remotely disabled and wiped of personal information.

Mikulski and three Senate colleagues, all Democrats, introduced The Smartphone Theft Prevention Act on Feb. 12, proposing that the technology be mandatory for new smartphones. The senators, led by Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, cited the Federal Communications Commission’s estimate that phone theft costs consumers $30 billion annually.

The bill would give the FCC authority to compel phone companies to develop and implement technology allowing victimized and absent-minded phone owners to disable their devices and clear personal information on request.

Mikulski touted the proposal Thursday at an event in Landover, Md., alongside Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority General Manager Richard Sarles and Metro Police Chief Ron Pavlik. During her speech, she says, AT&T sent a text message hawking insurance for her phone.

A kill switch would be even better than insurance, Mikulski says, because it would deny thieves a payday and thus a motive for robbing people.  

[RELATED: Congress Joins Smartphone Kill Switch Fight]

But there’s some opposition to the idea.

The Cellular Telecommunications and Internet Association in the past has opposed such proposals, warning that hackers might infiltrate the new technology, and electronic rights activists caution there may be abuse from authorities.

Mikulski says those concerns are not valid.

“First of all, if they’re worried about a hacker, they could do that to your cellphone now, a kill switch won’t affect that one way or the other,” she says. “In terms of your government shutting off your cellphone, I think that’s conspiratorial.”

Parker Higgins, a spokesman for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, disagrees.

“There aren’t a lot of technologies that get deployed in a way that might advantage police and the police decide not to pursue it,” Higgins says. “It doesn’t really seem conspiratorial to me to assume that what always happens is going to happen in this case. Similarly, the protection against hackers is that they’re not going to attack this one? It seems like she’s dismissing claims that seem pretty imminently reasonable.”

[READ: Mikulski Denouces Maryland Anti-NSA Bill]

EFF, which advocates for greater individual rights in cyberspace, is suing to stop the National Security Agency’s dragnet collection of phone records and generally opposes expanding the government’s hand in technology.

“Without question, there is a lot of phone theft and it is probably true if the value drops immediately to nothing as soon as [a phone] gets stolen that could dissuade some phone theft,” Higgins says. “But it seems the risks here are pretty great and even that benefit seems like it’s probably not worth that trade-off.”

Mikulski, first elected to the Senate in 1986, sees the proposal in a historical context and as logical consumer protection regulation.

“Reasons are being invented not to put the kill switch on [phones] and those reasons are rooted in the cost – these are the same types of arguments and resistance as when we tried to put seat belts into cars, when we wanted to put automatic locks in cars to prevent carjackings,” she says.

The Senate bill has gained no co-sponsors since it was introduced by Klobuchar, Mikulski and Sens. Mazie Hirono of Hawaii and Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut. But the Maryland senator says she hopes the idea will ultimately receive bipartisan backing.