Everyone knows about Ximex mall and what goes on there. If you want a cheap high end phone and you are one of those people who is not too bothered by ethics and the law then Ximex mall is the place to be. It is the Shangri-La of shady deals where people pawn their wares without questions asked. The dealers who mill around the place buy and sell technology gadgets-a lot of which (it is suspected) is stolen.
There a host of other places like these around the country and although authorities have tried everything from cordoning off the place the practice of buying and selling stolen phones and tablets has continued unabated. Legislators in the US state of Minnesota think they have a solution to combat this global problem of cellphone theft: a compulsory kill switch in every phone and tablet.
What is a kill switch?
When a phone is stolen, the rightful owner can use a kill switch to remotely access the phone and remotely wipe any sensitive data from the device. Most people use their phones as private diaries, some have private photos and videos that would embarrass their owners if they were to leak- just ask people like Tino Katsande. There is no doubt that a kill switch would be a useful thing to have then.
Kill switches are nothing new and some device manufacturers like Samsung and Apple have incorporated them in their devices for some time. What these US legislators are advocating for however is a bit radical. To understand this paradigm shift one ought to understand that there are two types of kill switches i.e. a soft kill switch and a hard kill switch.
A soft kill switch would allow the legitimate owner of the phone to prevent a thief from accessing and using the phone. Hackers and thieves have sometimes found workarounds to bypass this measure. A hard kill switch would permanently make the phone unusable even if the rightfully owner were to recover it. It’s a sort of, ” If I cannot have it then no one will” gesture.
This law would compel device manufacturers to install a hard kill switch in all phones sold in that state from 2015 onwards. The question is would Zimbabweans benefit from implementing a similar law or/and would Zimbabweans benefit from using kill switches.
Would it help Zimbabweans?
Given the high number of phones that are stolen and sold illegally, I think users and the government alike should consider at least encouraging the use of soft kill switches. A lot of people I know have lost their phones to muggers and pick-pockets at shows, in bars etc.
Currently reporting the matter to the ZRP is a waste of time as the matter will most certainly not be investigated unless you have all the information required to recover your phone and you are just contacting the police so they can help you recover the phone. There is also no sufficient cooperation between network operators when it comes to blacklisting and blocking the phone from accessing the network.
A lot of people I talked to were either not aware that their phones came equipped with a kill switch or had not activated it. I would encourage those who have kill switches on their phones to use them for you never know when they might come in handy and save the day. A kill switch would help you prevent unauthorised use of your phone when it is stolen but it has its drawbacks:
- The kill switch is normally found on smartphones only and despite the recent rise in the uptake of smartphones, this country is still very much a country of feature phones and it would be hard to implement/impossible kill switches on these.
- Kill switches do not work if the stolen mobile is either switched off or placed in Airplane mode. Everyone who has had their phone stolen knows that this is the first thing that the thief does when they steal a phone so the phone owner only has couple of moments before they activate the kill switch.
- Such a phone can then be “flashed” and resold to another party.
- Even if the user manages to engage the kill switch this will not prevent the thief from cashing in. The mobile phone can be stripped and sold for parts in a way similar to what car thieves do to cars. Parts like LCDs, covers and processors are not affected by the kill switch. A 7″ LCD sells for around $50 here and people have killed for less.
- A hacker or virus might activate your kill switch and wipe all your data.
- The hard kill switch is just vindictive and serves no real purpose other than just spiting the thief and his buyer. What if you activate it and later find out that your phone was in one your least favourite jackets and not stolen?
- Given our less than reliable networks, your kill switch activation might not reach your phone at all.
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