Despite this, many telecoms opposed the mandate of remote lock until earlier this year. There was a theory as to why—wouldn’t a phone company want your phone to get stolen so that you have to buy a new one?—but it doesn't hold up to close inspection. A carrier gets a lot more money from you through a contract than when you buy a device. And the explanation that telecoms are loath to cede any of their mobile-insurance revenues might not tell the full story either.
The industry’s resistance was probably more due to a preference for the status quo. “The cellphone industry has always been pretty lightly regulated, and tends to resist almost all new forms of regulation almost as reflex,” says Jan Dawson, chief analyst at Jackdaw Research. Once companies saw that the law wasn’t too demanding, most of them embraced it, even if building an effective remote-lock system can be resource-intensive.
Though most carriers and manufacturers are onboard, CTIA, the industry group that represents just about all of them, curiously is not. CTIA has, for its part, taken steps to decrease theft, educating consumers about mobile-security apps and the use of PIN codes. In a statement distributed to the press, it called the California law “unnecessary given the breadth of action the industry has taken.” But in a less measured bit of criticism, the CTIA has suggested that remote lock might be giving hackers a way to shut down the cellphones of Defense Department officials.
Another vocal opponent of remote lock, the non-profit Electronic Frontier Foundation, has at times taken a similar tack. In an open letter to a California legislator, the EFF cited concerns that people other than a phone’s owner would remotely lock it. Hanni Fakhoury, a staff attorney at EFF, told Wired, “You can imagine a domestic violence situation...where someone kills [a victim’s] phone and prevents them from calling the police…It will not be a surprise when you see it being used this way.” The article was headlined “How Cops and Hackers Could Abuse California’s New Phone Kill-Switch Law,” and when it’s put like that—"hackers," "abuse," "kill"—it indeed sounds scary.
To make their point, the EFF and other critics have brought up an incident in 2011 when San Francisco’s transit system, BART, shut down cell service in its tunnels to prevent a protest. The anecdote stands as an example of how the government could shut down the communications of its own citizens, and the EFF points to the fact that the government could use remote lock if a court found it had probable cause.
The EFF is right that this is worrisome, but they might be exaggerating its applicability to the remote-lock debate. “If government wanted to do something as invasive as switching off cell coverage for an area, they’re not going to do it through handsets,” says Lookout’s Marc Rogers. It’s already been demonstrated that the government can shut down communications—that’s exactly what they did in 2011—and remote-lock isn’t going to change that.