California Presses the Kill Switch on Smartphone Thieves

The much debated California smartphone ‘kill switch’ bill is just a step away from becoming a fully-fledged law. After seeing the green light at the Senate with 27 positive votes against eight negatives, all it needs is the Governor’s nod before it comes into force. Apart from one noticeable distinction, the bill hasn’t seen many changes as compared to when it was proposed in May.

kill switch

Photo: spinetta / Shutterstock

The only big change worth mentioning is that now it provides an exemption for older devices that cannot integrate the remote lockdown feature.

The bill is designed to control the increasing cases of smartphone theft in the most populous state of the US.

According to the bill, all smartphones that are manufactured after July 1 2015, must “render the essential features of the smartphone inoperable when not in the possession of the authorized user”, in order to be eligible for sale in California.

Once the bill is signed by Governor Brown, all new smartphones in California will prompt users to enable the data wiping feature during the initial device setup. However, it’s not mandatory for the user to enable this feature. If the data wiping feature is enabled, the kill switch would lock a number of essential apps from the phone in case of a theft. The apps would stay locked until they are authenticated by the original owner.

The bill also directs smartphone manufacturers to help re-activate the phone once it is in possession of its original owner. Apart from the data wiping feature, the bill also states that if anyone is found selling stolen phones, they would face a civil penalty ranging from $500-$2,500 per smartphone.

Smartphone theft has attained monstrous proportions of late. A consumer report reveals that there were 3.1 million stolen smartphones in 2013. The number was 1.6 million is 2012. The bill has managed to garner support from many cities such as San Diego, Los Angeles, and San Francisco, along with multiple police groups and consumer unions.

Data from the city district attorney’s office shows that the year 2012 saw mobile phones being stolen in more than 50 percent of robberies in San Francisco.

The opposing parties include the wireless industry lobby CTIA, two municipal Chambers of Commerce, along with the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF). The EFF’s opposition was made clear in a letter released in June, which stated that a number of existing options such as Avast Mobile Security and Find My iPhone already provide a similar kill switch option without the state’s intervention. Furthermore, a compulsory feature like this might have vulnerabilities that could be exploited by hackers.

At present, only Minnesota has passed such a bill, but it comes with an ‘opt-in’ only feature.

While wireless carriers are vocal about their opposition to the bill, supporters have questioned their intentions by pointing at the opposition’s profitable relations with insurance companies.

In an official statement, Jamie Hastings, the VP of external and state affairs for CTIA, has urged the Governor not to sign the bill. He said that uniformity in the wireless industry has benefitted the consumers with advantages such as lower costs and state of the art technology. He further added that if states make separate laws for this technology, it would be destructive for the consumers.

After the state senate passed the bill with a clear majority on Monday, the ball is now in the court of Governor Brown.

Already available in some iPhones, the kill switch feature allows the user to disable a number of basic features if the phone is stolen. According to the law enforcement officials, statistics show that this technology has minimized iPhone theft in New York and California. Microsoft and Google also seem to be working upon a similar technology.

The bill was introduced in the state senate by Mark Leno, a Democrat and state senator from San Francisco. What makes this bill stand apart from similar bills in New York, Illinois, Rhode Island, and Minnesota is that when the device is setup for the first time, it has to prompt the user to enable the kill switch.

The Governor has 11 days to make up his mind. If he decides to sign it, smartphone makers have to incorporate the kill switch prompt in every phone that is manufactured after July 1 2015.

According to Leno, this bill aims at minimizing smartphone theft in California, where it has become the most common street crime.

Interestingly, even before the bill is passed, companies such as Samsung, Apple, and Google have started working on a critical feature that would erase all the data from a smartphone and lock it if the device is stolen. Once the smartphone is recovered and returned to the authentic user, the data could be restored.