LANDOVER - Maryland Sen. Barbara Mikulski wants to give control back to consumers when it comes to protecting personal and financial information stored on mobile devices by requiring manufacturers to install a "kill switch" that would render phones useless if stolen.
Mikulski announced legislation to that effect Thursday in the wake of a surge in cell phone thefts at Washington Metro stations.
The Smartphone Theft Prevention Act that Mikulski is supporting would require carriers to have a security feature on all cell phones that would allow victims of theft to deactivate the device from a website and remove personal information.
A similar measure is being considered in the House that will make tampering with the unique identification number of a cell phone a federal offense punishable by jail time.
"This is a new crime and it is dangerous," Mikulski said. "When they can go from cell phone theft to identity theft you have a big problem."
Metro Police Chief Ron Pavlik said Metro has seen a 50 percent increase in cell phone thefts in the past year. The top 10 Metro stations for cell phone theft in 2013 were all located in Washington, with Deanwood in the lead with 35 thefts, followed by Gallery Place with 30 and Brookland with 28.
While not ranking in the top 10, two Metro stations in Maryland had a significant number of thefts - Capitol Heights with 14 and West Hyattsville with 12.
Pavlik’s advice to Metro riders is to “get your head out of your phone, keep it out of sight as much as possible and when using your device always maintain an awareness of what is going on around you.”
Mikulski’s appearance comes on the heals of a data security breach at the University of Maryland on Tuesday in which more that 300,000 personal records of faculty, staff and students were compromised.
Similar data breaches came to light over the holidays when both Target and Neiman Marcus announced massive security breaches that compromised the personal data of millions of consumers. The cyber attacks have put pressure on legislators to take action.
Cell phone thefts have risen sharply across the country according to the Federal Communications Commission. It is estimated that nearly one-in-three robberies in the nation involve cell phone theft.
Thieves targeting smartphones not only get a high resale value, but also a treasure trove of personal and financial information they can misuse to disrupt the lives of their victims.
“It is estimated that in the United States of America this is a $30 billion dollar industry that is four times the budget of the FBI,” Mikulski said.
Apple has already started making kill switches available on its phones, and other companies are working on similar plans.
She said that more debate is needed as we enter a “new age of techno crime,” which includes coming up with ways to protect consumers and personal privacy while following the Constitution. She also emphasized the need to work with the private sector, saying that it will be in their interest to have these reforms in place.
“I think there is an opportunity for coalitions, common sense and civility to move this legislation forward,” Mikulski said.