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.
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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