Smartphone 'kill switch' bill heads to governor's desk

Your next phone may be required to have a built-in auto-theft mechanism — at least if you live in California.

The California Senate on Monday passed a bill that would require all smartphones sold in the state to have a so-called kill switch. The mechanism would allow owners to render the devices inoperable if they are lost or stolen.

Already passed by the state Assembly, the bill now proceeds to the desk of Governor Jerry Brown. It’s not clear yet whether Brown will sign it, although supporters of the bill expect him to do so.

“It would be hard for me to imagine him vetoing this bill because it’s such a common-sense consumer measure,” said the bill’s co-sponsor, Assemblywoman Nancy Skinner, D-Berkeley, last week.

The bill would require smartphones manufactured after July 1, 2015 to have a kill switch that would make it impossible for them to be used to access the Internet, send text messages or make non-emergency phone calls. The bill would mandate that phones prompt owners to activate the feature when they set up their devices for the first time and would require consumers to manually opt-out of using the feature. The kill switches would be required to work even if devices are reset to factory defaults.

Feature phones would be exempted from the kill-switch requirement, as would be older smartphones that can’t be updated to include the feature.

The legislation is in response to an alarming rise in smartphone thefts. According to the Federal Communications Commission, smartphone robberies comprise some 30 to 40 percent of all robberies in many major U.S. cities and they hit more than 50 percent of all robberies in San Francisco in 2012.

Kill switches can deter robberies by making smartphones unusable and essentially worthless after they are stolen. Apple put in place a form of a kill switch in the latest version of its iOS operating system.

But supporters of the bill have argued that usage needs to be nearly universal to widely discourage robberies, because it can be unclear by just looking at a device whether it has a kill switch turned on or not.

Photo courtesy of Samsung.

Troy Wolverton Troy Wolverton (274 Posts)

Troy writes the Tech Files column as the Personal Technology Columnist at the San Jose Mercury News. He also covers the digital media, mobile and video game industries and writes occasionally about Apple, chips, social networking and other aspects of technology. Previously, Troy covered Apple and the consumer electronics industry. Prior to joining the Mercury News, Troy reported on technology, business and financial issues for TheStreet.com and CNET News.com.