Photo by Matt Sarnecki.

San Francisco District Attorney George Gascón released a statement today saying that a kill-switch for smartphones would save consumers billions of dollars by deterring the rapidly increasing theft of cell phones:

As the epidemic of smartphone theft continues to grow, so do the profits insurance companies and carriers reap off the victimization of their own customers. The common sense theft deterrent features we have been advocating for will not only save millions of people from violent victimization, it will also save consumers billions of dollars. The simple fact is, you cannot put a price on a loved one lost to violent crime. Manufacturers and carriers have the technology available to end this violent epidemic right now – they need to put public safety before corporate profits.

The announcement follows the release of a study by Creighton University showing that the vast majority of Americans believe both that a kill-switch on their cells phones would prevent theft and that such a deterrent should be offered gratis by wireless carriers.

The study also found that instituting a kill-switch could save Americans $1.1 billion by not having to replace stolen phones and another $2.3 billion by switching from premium cell phone insurance to services offered by third parties (Americans spend about $5.5 billion annually on that premium insurance).

This is something that District Attonery Gascón has backed before, saying that having a kill-switch would “take away the financial incentive for thieves and end this crime of convenience,” the idea being that thieves would walk away with a phone that would be immediately disabled and therefore worthless.

And though wireless carriers, after years of dragging their feet through the mud, are now more open to permitting a kill-switch option in their settings, Gascón thinks this is not yet enough.

The reason is that such settings are still opt-in, meaning users will by default not have theft deterrence on their phones. (On the importance of opt-out vs. opt-in, see differences in organ donation between countries that presume consent by default and those that must specifically ask for it.) This preserves an incentive for mugging, as thieves can assume that users will not have enabled that particular setting and that their phones will still be worth several hundred dollars apiece.

Time will tell whether wireless carriers take Gascón’s worries seriously and institute opt-out kill-switch settings, a move that could save consumers billions and police departments untold sums and labor hours in enforcement of cell phone theft.

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Joe was born in Sweden, where the Chilean half of his family received asylum after fleeing Pinochet, and spent his early childhood in Chile; he moved to Oakland when he was eight. He attended Stanford University for political science and worked at Mission Local as a reporter after graduating. He then spent time in advocacy as a partner for the strategic communications firm The Worker Agency. He rejoined Mission Local as an editor in 2023.

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