Minnesota passes first-in-nation smart phone 'kill switch' law

Minnesota becomes the first state to demand smart phones have kill switches to deactivate them if they’re stolen. The legislation is aimed at the rising trend of smart phone muggings.

Office of Governor Mark Dayton
Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton signs the smartphone 'kill switch' bill into law Wednesday. California and New York are currently weighing similar legislation.

Minnesota's new "kill switch" law requiring manufacturers to install a function that remotely disables stolen phones aims to curb the rising tide of violent cell phone theft.

The Minnesota law, which Gov. Mark Dayton signed Wednesday, will require all new cellphones sold after July 2015 to be enabled with a kill switch and will prohibit retailers from paying cash for used devices. Minnesota is the first state to enact such a law, but New York, California, and the federal government are currently weighing similar legislation. 

"Cell phone theft is a major concern here in Minnesota and around the country,” said state Sen. Katie Sieben, who authored the bill, in a statement. “This legislation, which is the first of its kind in the country, will help reduce the likelihood that people will be robbed of their smart phones.”

Cellphone theft is a growing problem across the country. In 2013, 3.1 million Americans reported having their phones stolen, compared with 1.6 million people the year before, according to a Consumer Reports survey. Federal statistics suggest that one-third of all robberies around the country involve phone theft.

Half of the 579 thefts recorded in San Francisco between November 2012 and April 2013 involved physical violence; one-quarter of the city's victims reported having been threatened with a knife or gun, according to an IDG News Service investigation.

Advocates of the bill hope that making it difficult for thieves to use or sell stolen phones will take away the value of the crime.

In June, nearly three dozen members of law enforcement, elected officials, and consumers advocates joined San Francisco District Attorney George Gascón and New York State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman’s Secure Our Smartphones Initiative, which demands that cellphone manufacturers develop a kill switch that would “render stolen devices inoperable on any network, anywhere in the world.”

"Corporations have an obligation to be good corporate citizens," Mr. Gascón told Consumer Reports. "Part of that is providing a product that's going to be safe."

The Minnesota law raises the possibility of different states having different regulations for cellphones, complicating matters for manufacturers. 

The Cellular Telecommunications Industry Association, the wireless industry trade organization, has encouraged its member companies to roll out the feature by the middle of next year, according to CTIA vice president for external and state affairs Jamie Hastings. She cautioned that state-by-state legislation would stifle innovation.

A federal bill, the Smartphone Theft Prevention Act, was introduced in Congress in February by Rep. José Serrano (D) of New York. However, even if the federal bill becomes law, states could still opt to enact their own stricter legislation.

The bill currently making its way through the California Legislature, for instance, would require the technology to be installed as a default setting, while the federal bill (and the Minnesota law) states that the feature be “made available,” according to Tom’s Guide, an online tech news publication.

Both the federal bill and the Minnesota law prescribe a “soft” kill switch, that can be deactivated by the phone’s rightful owner, as opposed to the “hard” kill switch that the Secure Our Smartphone Initiative calls for, which would eliminate the option of reactivation and effectively turn stolen devices into paperweights.

Ms. Hastings maintains that such legislation is unnecessary in light of steps the industry has taken, which include a database of stolen phones, public education campaigns, and anti-theft apps.

Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.

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