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Could Cops Use Phone 'Kill Switch' To Shut Down Ferguson-Style Protests?

SACRAMENTO (CBS SF) - Governor Jerry Brown is expected to sign a California bill into law requiring all new phones to have a remote shutdown feature known as a "kill switch," but protests in Ferguson, Missouri have sparked a last-ditch effort to stop the bill.

During the protests, the police there have reportedly tried to get journalists and protesters to turn off their video cameras on their phones. Now some people are worried that if all smart phones have kill switches, law enforcement might hack in to them during a protest.

On Friday, a Fellow at the Center for Democracy and Technology wrote:

"If the California bill were in place in Missouri, these officers might deploy the government kill switch alongside tear gas and rubber bullets, using the mandated technology to stop coordination between protesters, cut off access to outside information, and shut down video recordings that can deter police misconduct," said Jake Laperruque, Fellow at the Center for Democracy & Technology

Now, to be clear, the fear of police misuse of kill switches is not a new argument, it's one that has been heard before. But the events in Ferguson have now really animated the opposition.

It's not entirely clear that police would even have the ability to shut down phones. The law requires that the switches be optional, so people can turn them off if they are concerned about being hacked. Second, assuming the switch requires a login, the police would have to basically hack a bunch of phones. Remember that if the police want to disrupt communication at a protest, they already have a much easier alternative - they can shut down the wireless service to an area, sort of like what we saw during the BART protests in 2011.

Larry Magid: Who Controls The Kill Switch?

Sources tell KPIX 5 the new round of questions likely won't be enough to prevent Governor Brown from signing the bill. California's bill, if signed, would be the nationwide standard. The California's market is so big that cell phone manufacturers can't stop selling here, and it would be tough to sell California-specific phones, so chances are that they would just add the kill switches to all phones and be done with it.


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