California passes smart phone 'kill switch' law

A bill passed Monday in the California legislature says that all smart phones sold in California beginning July 2015 will need a 'kill switch' to render them inoperable in case they get stolen.

Lee Jin-man/AP/File
An employee shows Samsung's Galaxy S5 smartphone at a mobile phone shop in Seoul, South Korea last month. Major mobile manufacturers will soon add smartphone kill switches to their devices for free.

California could become the second state to embrace the "kill switch" movement. 

A bill passed Monday in the state's legislature would require that all smart phones sold in the state after July 1, 2015 feature a "kill switch" that lets owners remotely render them inoperable if they become lost or stolen. If the bill is signed into law by Democratic governor Jerry Brown, who has 12 days to decide if he will sign it, California would mark a turning point in stemming a growing tide of smart-phone-related crimes. 

"This legislation will literally stop smartphone thieves in their tracks by ensuring all new smartphones sold in California come pre-enabled with theft-deterrent technology," said State Sen. Mark Leno, the bill's sponsor, in a statement. Senator Leno first introduced the bill in February and other states including New York, Illinois, and Rhode Island are considering similar legislation. 

More than 50 percent of all robberies in San Francisco and more than 75 percent of all robberies in Oakland in 2012 included a mobile device, according to a State Senate report. 

Still, the bill failed in the State Senate when first introduced due to opposition from the wireless industry, which expressed concerns about such legislation, among them that allowing for kill switch laws on a state-by-state basis would make it difficult for smart phone manufacturers to make devices that fit each state's laws. 

"Although well intentioned ... [the California bill] is not only unnecessary, but will have negative consequences to consumer security and public safety; with no proof that it would do more to deter smartphone theft than the solutions already being advanced by industry," wrote CTIA, a wireless industry trade group, in a letter to Sen. Leno that was signed by Verizon, Google, and AT&T, among others.

The group instead favors legislation on a federal level, such as that introduced by Sen. Chuck Schumer (D) of New York that would make it a federal crime to "tamper with the unique identification number of a cell phone."

As smart phones have become seemingly omnipresent, this California legislation demonstrates the near-constant game of catch-up that lawmakers have to play with Silicon Valley. And in an increasingly mobile world, defending against smart-phone-related crimes is becoming more and more important. 

Google and Microsoft recently announced that they would begin offering kill switches on their operating systems and devices, similar to Apple and other companies, following a June report from the New York State Attorney General's office that said kill switches can reduce smart phone robberies by as much as 40 percent. Following the passage of a mandatory kill switch law in Minnesota, making it the first state to enact such legislation, the report detailed the increasing number of smart phone thefts as well as the finding that smart phone crimes have become more violent over time. 2013 saw more than 3.1 million smart phones stolen in the US alone, almost double the number stole in 2012, according to the report. 

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