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.


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  • James Anderson Merritt

    Show of hands: Who has actually READ the bill? I have. Not only can the OWNER use the kill switch, but the carrier can use it without the owner’s permission and also in response to government request. There is a part of the California Public Utilities Code that governs when government can disrupt communications, and they can ALREADY use those provisions to cut you off from the phone network. But the implications of this law go further: they can turn your phone into a brick, whether or not you are trying to use the cell network! The Utilities Code section specifies a procedure to follow, and warrants are involved (which can be signed by a fairly broad variety of judicial and quasi-judicial people). Still, we have seen how similar laws, with similar legal “safefuards” for privacy, have been abused by the government in the recent past, so I can’t take much comfort in the “process.” Also, if the physical kill-switch mechanism exists in the phone, hackers will find a way to exploit it. Is the “epidemic” of cell phone theft so bad that you want to give government and hackers a remote “bricking switch” for your phone? I would be OK with a mechanism that could ONLY be used by the owner. But this law doesn’t provide for that, not even close, and I despair that passage of this law now comes down to just one signature. Through your cell phone, others (not just government!) can already track you, peep at you, and listen to you. Now others can deny you access to the personal-assistant/computer facets of your cell phone by bricking the unit remotely. Why do we put up with this kind of thing? If privacy is dead or swiftly dying, it is through our own negligence and apathy.

  • Disqusted

    “…it’s such a common-sense consumer measure…” said Assemblywoman Nancy Skinner

    What an idiot. This is NOT a consumer friendly law.
    Can I say it again. Idiot

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