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Before passing cell-phone ‘kill switch’ bill, consider these concerns

What forensic evidence might be lost if a phone’s memory was wiped with a ‘kill switch’?

There has been a lot of attention recently around the issue of cell-phone safety, especially as it relates to the University of Minnesota, where I am a freshman. As a young female, I take these public-safety issues on campus very seriously. Whether it is coming home from the library late at night, or trying to spend time with friends on the weekend, I am in the demographic that is most at risk.

Elizabeth Hazekamp

I have watched with some nervousness as state legislators here have started the process to mandate what is known as a “kill switch” on new devices. Legislators are saying that they want wireless devices to be able to be wiped clean if they are stolen. Sounds great, right?

Here is what makes me nervous as a female on a big urban campus. Imagine a situation in which I lose my phone, or presume it is stolen. I do the responsible thing and report it, and because “kill switch” legislation has passed in Minnesota, I am able to wipe the phone clean, essentially making it an overvalued paperweight. Part of killing the phone likely means erasing its ability to be used to call 911. Now what happens if I find my lost phone after it has been wiped clean, but before I’ve had a chance to get a new phone? In an age when most people only have a wireless device, what would I do if in an emergency situation with a bricked phone before I’ve had the ability to have my device replaced?

For those in law enforcement, I would ask if they are comfortable that this legislation can be amended in such a way that will allow 911 calls to be made once a phone is “killed?” Or put differently, is law enforcement comfortable with the fact that people in Minnesota might not be able to call 911 in emergency situations?’ 

The issue of forensic evidence

Another issue that is very concerning to me as a potentially vulnerable student, is what data is lost from a phone that is “killed” from a “kill switch.”  I can only assume that is the answer is everything. We’re talking about potentially violent crimes here. What forensic evidence would be lost in this instance? What evidence that could be the key to solving a crime against a student like me, or a friend of mine, would be wiped out along with the rest of the data? Are law-enforcement agents comfortable with the idea of losing forensic data? Do we know if the technology being mandated here can address that?  Have unintended consequences such as this even been discussed?

As I wrote at the outset, there has been a lot of attention around this issue recently, and rightfully so. Campuses in particular have become dangerous places when virtually every student is carrying thousands of dollars worth of technology in their hands. We have become targets. I saw on TV recently that the Hennepin County sheriff is leading an effort to educate my classmates and me. 

There are apps available for Windows, Androids and Apple phones already to lock and protect data. And students can protect themselves, while still having the ability to dial 911 in an emergency, simply by locking their phones and being self-aware. 

Beware of unintended consequences

So as the Legislature approaches this, I hope it doesn’t make this situation worse, or more dangerous than it is right now. The biggest problem I see, from watching this discussion over “kill switch” legislation develop, is that I don’t think either law enforcement or the Legislature knows the answer. 

If the answer really is “we don’t know,” I would submit that is not a good way for us to pass new mandates that very well might make us less safe or make it more difficult for law enforcement to collect forensic data.  As a young, college woman, the last thing I want to see is violent crime on my campus that affects a friend, classmate or even me personally. The only thing more frightening, to a student like me, is passing these new mandates without knowing the consequences.

Elizabeth Hazekamp is a student at the University of Minnesota.


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Comments (6)

  1. Submitted by Kathryn Hatlestad on 03/14/2014 - 11:03 pm.

    all phones allow 911 calls

    Kill switch or not, I believe that all phones allow for emergency 911 calls.

  2. Submitted by Pat Berg on 03/15/2014 - 09:59 am.

    Logical disconnects

    The author goes to some pains to elaborate her concerns over the loss of the ability to dial 911 while in the midst of a discussion over a phone which has been lost. The phone is lost. Think about it. You’re not going to be able to dial 911 on a phone you don’t have possession of, so this argument doesn’t even make sense.

    And the comment towards the end of the article that the idea of having a “bricked” phone is more frightening to her than is the prospect of being the victim of a violent crime really makes me wonder about the priorities of young people if they value their bond with their electronic devices more highly than they value their own wellbeing.

  3. Submitted by Todd Hintz on 03/15/2014 - 06:10 pm.


    The probability of recovering a lost or misplaced cell phone and getting into a situation at the very moment you need to call 911 is astronomically small. At most you’re looking at a couple of hours before the phone is either reactivated or the individual has a new phone. And, as another poster pointed out, you can still call 911 even with an inactivated phone. It all depends on how the phone is wiped clean and whether or not they wipe out the operating system.

    As far as the forensic issue is concerned, that’s a complete non-issue. Any forensic team worth their salt can recover deleted files as long as the phone’s drive hasn’t been phyisically destroyed. Generally a quick drive wipe consists of wiping out the File Allocation Table, which just deletes the index pointing to the files. The files themselves are still there. And even if the files themselves are overwritten, with the right tools the team can still pull them up. It just takes a little longer to get the data off.

  4. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 03/16/2014 - 05:06 pm.


    Just because one person has trouble thinking through the consequences doesn’t mean no one can… or has. Dealing with a wiped phone when and if you get it back is an inconvenience. Being assaulted in order to take a phone that cannot be wiped is actually dangerous. It’s the difference between an imaginary scenario and actual crime that’s taking place every day. As for the forensic considerations… I suppose you think the police dust stolen bicycles for fingerprints when they recover them? Someone’s been watching too much TV. My guess is that unless that phone was somehow involved in a murder or a kidnapping nobody’s got the time or any reason to be recovering any data from it… crimes of the century these are not.

    As for losing it, well… responsible adults try not to lose valuable things instead assuming they lose them, and get them back. I lost a cell phone once, never saw it again.

  5. Submitted by Tom Kelly on 03/17/2014 - 12:30 am.

    Cell phone kill switch

    I’ve heard other arguments cautioning lawmakers about the consequences of a ‘kill switch ‘ law. They’re all more logical than the ones offered by this author. Presumably, a person would think and search and think awhile before killing their phone. Find it 5 minutes later? Bummer. The increase in safety afforded by a kill switch functionality is that the phone could be rendered useless by its owner at any point. Why steal it, why buy it stolen, if it could be dead 5 minutes later. That deterrent isn’t diminished much by a person taking the time to be sure the phone is actually gone and not under the seat of the car.

  6. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 03/17/2014 - 08:55 am.

    The only reservation I have…

    Is that the “kill” actually works. Is there really no way a phone can be recovered or restored to operablity once it’s killed? I know kids in Panama that seem to be able to anything they want with any phone they get their hands on.

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