In my last post, I noted some updates that had been made to the U.S. Federal Legislation page on the SEI web site, including information on the debate surrounding cell phone kill switches (scroll down to “Legislation and Policies that Apply to Electronics in Other Life-cycle Stages”).
I’ve added information on the two current State laws requiring cell phone kill switches to the U.S. State & Local Legislation page. Minnesota was the first to pass such a law, in May 2014, and California just became the second a few days ago. Both laws will go into effect on July 1, 2015.
A kill switch is a means to render a device inoperable if stolen, the idea being that such a function would reduce the rising problem of cell phone theft. Pressure for such legislation has been on the rise as reports of violence tied to cell phone theft have increased and received media attention. Similar, voluntarily implemented functions have been previously made available by some manufacturers, leading some to say that legislation is unnecessary. Concern has also been expressed by opponents about whether such disabling technology could be used with ill intent with the manipulation of hackers, the example of law enforcement officers having their phones rendered inoperable in a crisis being offered as a worst case scenario.
As I point out on SEI’s federal legislation page, one potential outcome of proposed kill switch technology often ignored by the media and general public is the exacerbation of the growing e-waste problem. Kill switches are meant to render a device completely inoperable so that thieves could not reinstate the device’s capabilities. This means a perfectly functioning phone would be rendered useless, except as fodder for recycling and materials reclamation. That in itself has lead some to argue that kill switch legislation won’t work to thwart crime–as long as there’s some value, however minimal, for the materials included in what would then be an expensive paperweight, someone will be willing to steal the device, those with this viewpoint claim. For me, however, the broader issue has been the discouragement of reuse. Lots of materials and energy go into creation of our electronics–much more energy, for example, is expended in the manufacturing of electronics than is expended in their use. From a lifecycle perspective, it’s particularly important to extend the useful life of these devices. Would kill switch legislation, which may or may not end up discouraging crime, end up making it more difficult for useful products to be used to the full extent possible, I’ve wondered? What if someone misplaced their phone, had it deactivated, and then found it or had it returned by a Good Samaritan–only to find it useless? What if the authorities apprehended a thief and were able to retrieve and return a phone, again, only to leave the owner to the task of responsibly recycling and replacing it?
The encouraging thing about California’s legislation is that it requires that the “technological solution” to rendering the device inoperable upon theft be reversible, “so that if an authorized user obtains possession of the smartphone after the essential features of the smartphone have been rendered inoperable, the operation of those essential features can be restored by an authorized user.” How all of that will work, and work smoothly, remains to be seen. But this shows that legislators have heard concerns like the ones I expressed above from others, as well as arguments regarding hackers and terrorism, no matter how far fetched those might actually be, and have put some thought into countering unintended consequences.
At the end of the day, that’s what sustainability is really all about–trying to avoid and mitigate the unintended consequences of our actions and choices.