The Electronic Frontier Foundation is celebrating Google added a 2G kill switch to Android 12. The digital rights group campaigned against the outdated and insecure 2G cellular standard since 2020, and Android is the first mobile operating system to follow the group’s advice and allow users to completely disable 2G.
In the US, carriers shut down 2G years ago, and the 3G shutdown is already happening. However, the phones haven’t really gotten the message, and the modems are still trying to automatically connect to any nearby 2G signals. The problem is that 2G is very old, and it’s kind of like connecting to a WEP-secured Wi-Fi hotspot – the security is outdated, so it’s easy to break. If you’re in a country where legitimate uses of 2G are long dead, the standard only serves as an attack vector via fake cell towers, so why not just turn it off?
The EFF explains the issues:
There are two main problems with 2G. First, it uses weak encryption between the tower and the device that can be hacked in real time by an attacker to intercept calls or SMS. In fact, the attacker can do this passively without ever transmitting a single packet. The second problem with 2G is that there is no tower to phone authentication which means anyone can easily impersonate a real 2G tower and a phone using 2G protocol does not will never be wiser.
This does not mean that non-2G signals are “secure”. They are less unsafe, but you still shouldn’t trust the cellular network. The best practice is to encrypt everything. This is usually the default for web communications, but depending on your carrier and phone configuration, carrier services such as SMS and phone calls may be more vulnerable.
So why is 2G still on by default, when it’s clearly outdated? The history of 2G varies widely around the world. Cellular IoT company EMnify maintains an incredible phasing out 2G worldwide list worth perusing. Some countries like the United States, Canada, Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan have dropped 2G for a while. Europe won’t kill 2G until 2025, though. Some countries in South America are maintaining the standard until 2024, and some countries in Africa have no planned 2G shutdown date.
Even if you’re in a country that still has 2G, you’ll probably want to turn it off. 2G has no ability to send data, so it’s probably only facilitating horrible analog voice calls and maybe texting, if your carrier has the worst, most poorly maintained texting system on Earth. Chances are that killing 2G won’t change your smartphone experience at all, so give it a try.
With Android supported, the EFF now focuses on Apple. He is running a Twitter campaign with a one click tweet button reading “Hey @Apple, 2G is an outdated and insecure technology! Google just gave us the ability to disable it on our phones and now it’s your turn!”
How the 2G kill switch works on Android
This 2G kill switch is a new feature in Android 12, but which phones actually get it? As usual with Android, the answer is complicated and the switch does not come to all Android 12 phones. Android 12 Release Notes Note that the actual requirements for the features are Android 12 and “Radio 1.6 HAL”.
This radio “hardware abstraction layer” is one of the Project Treble vendor interfaces we talk about so much. Treble is a project that modularizes the operating system away from hardware support, allowing for easier upgrades; this HAL is that interface that sits between the operating system and the hardware driver. Actual HALs aren’t updated much, so your best bet for getting a 2G kill switch is to buy a new Android phone that launches with Android 12, not one that’s upgraded to Android 12.
But wait, it’s Android, so carriers can get in the way too. As the release notes say, “operators can disable the feature at runtime”. With all the possible variables here, the only way to really tell if Kill 2G is supported is to open the settings and take a look. I can confirm the switch is on the Pixel 6, and EFF says to check some newer Samsung phones.
If you want to kill 2G and have a normal settings layout, the switch is in “Settings > Network & Internet > SIMs > Allow 2G”. If your OEM has scrambled Android settings for “differentiation”, try searching for “2G” or browsing cellular settings.