Proposed California law would mandate 'kill switch' for stolen phones and tablets

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Lawmakers in California are proposing legislation that would require wireless carriers install a so-called "kill switch" in smartphones and tablets sold in the state that would render the devices useless if stolen. If passed and signed into law, the bill would require phones and tablets sold in California on or after Jan. 1, 2015, to include the antitheft solution.

State Sen. Mark Leno (D-San Francisco) introduced the legislation and is expected to be joined by several other lawmakers in supporting it. "With robberies of smartphones reaching an all-time high, California cannot continue to stand by when a solution to the problem is readily available," Leno said in a statement. "Today we are officially stepping in and requiring the cellphone industry to take the necessary steps to curb violent smartphone thefts and protect the safety of the very consumers they rely upon to support their businesses."

Lawmakers are looking for ways to disable to core functions of a phone or tablet, which would in theory deter thefts because the phones would be unusable. Devices would be required to come enabled with a "technological solution" to render them inoperable after loss or theft. "A technological solution may consist of software, hardware, or a combination of both…but shall be able to withstand a hard reset," according to the legislation. It defines a "hard reset" as a way to restore the device to its factory settings.

The thinking is that if California passes such a law the industry will be forced to respond nationally because it would be cumbersome and inefficient to design phones with the kill switch specifically for devices sold in California. California is also the largest state economy in the country.

The bill is supported by San Francisco's district attorney, George Gascón, who has worked with Eric Schneiderman, New York's attorney general, to push the industry to adopt the kill switch. The pair teamed up to form the Secure Our Smartphones coalition to press companies to solve the problem of stolen phones technologically.

Gascón said more than half the robberies in San Francisco involve theft of mobile devices, and that urgency is needed to address the issue. According to the New York Times, which cited the San Francisco police, in San Francisco 2,400 cell phones were stolen last year, a 23 percent jump from 2012. Phone thefts also grew in New York and Washington, D.C., last year, according to police statistics, the report said. "The wireless industry must take action to end the victimization of its customers," Gascón said in a statement, according to the L.A. Times.

The CTIA said in a June 2013 FCC filing that "a kill switch isn't the answer." Further, CTIA has said that a kill switch would have drawbacks since hackers who took control of the feature could disable phones for customers. The trade group also said if a phone were deactivated and a customer later got it back, he or she could not reactivate it. However, that claim is not true in the case of Apple's (NASDAQ:AAPL) new antitheft feature, Activation Lock.

The CTIA also points out that carriers have set up a national database to meant to deactivate phones that have been reported stolen. However, the Times notes that several police officials have said that the database has been ineffective in deterring crime because many of the stolen phones end up overseas, where the database is not in force. In late November CTIA announced the launch of a global, multi-carrier, common database for LTE smartphones.

"These 3G and 4G/LTE databases, which blacklist stolen phones and prevent them from being reactivated, are part of the solution," Michael Altschul, senior vice president and general counsel for CTIA, told the San Francisco Examiner. "Yet we need more international carriers and countries to participate to help remove the aftermarket abroad for these trafficked devices."

For more:
- see this NYT article
- see this CNET article
- see this L.A. Times article
- see this San Francisco Examiner article

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