California mandates smartphone 'kill switches,' starting in 2015, to deter thieves

Gov. Jerry Brown of California (D-Calif.) signed into law a bill that requires smartphones sold in California to have "kill switch" technology that consumers could use to remotely deactivate phones and render stolen devices useless to thieves. The feature will be required on all smartphones sold in California starting in July 2015.

Minnesota adopted similar kill switch legislation in May, but the California law goes further and requires OEMs to ship smartphones with the technology turned on by default, according to the New York Times. The bill will also require manufacturers to notify consumers that the technology is available on their phones.

The bill has been wending its way through the California legislature since it was introduced in February by State Senator Mark Leno (D-San Francisco). The bill was supported heavily by George Gascón, San Francisco's district attorney.

"Our efforts will effectively wipe out the incentive to steal smartphones and curb this crime of convenience, which is fueling street crime and violence within our communities," Leno said, according to Reuters.

Apple (NASDAQ: AAPL) last fall included a new feature in its iOS software called Activation Lock that lets the users who have had their devices stolen remotely deactivate a phone, making it nearly useless for thieves. According to the Wall Street Journal, that feature has helped cut down on thefts of iPhones in New York City, London and San Francisco.

According to Consumer Reports, more than 3.1 million devices were stolen in the United States in 2013, nearly double the 1.6 million that were stolen in 2012. Lawmakers and prosecutors in California have noted that smartphone theft accounts for more than half of all crimes in San Francisco, Oakland and other cities.

In April, the largest wireless carriers and device makers banded together to support voluntary anti-theft measures for smartphones released starting next year. The measures were intended to head off kill switch legislation.

Specifically, Verizon Wireless (NYSE: VZ), AT&T Mobility (NYSE: T), Sprint (NYSE: S), T-Mobile US (NYSE:TMUS) and U.S. Cellular (NYSE:USM) joined forces with a host of popular smartphone and platform vendors to endorse the measures. Those companies include Apple (NASDAQ: AAPL), Google (NASDAQ: GOOG), HTC, Huawei, Motorola Mobility, Microsoft (NASDAQ: MSFT), Nokia and Samsung Electronics.

The handset makers and platform vendors agreed that for new smartphones manufactured after July 2015 for retail sale in the United States they will offer, at no cost to consumers, what the companies call "a baseline anti-theft tool that is preloaded or downloadable on wireless smartphones."

The tools will allow for the remote wiping of a user's data if it the device is lost or stolen; a tool that will make the smartphone inoperable to an unauthorized user (for example, by locking the smartphone so it cannot be used without a password or PIN), except in accordance with FCC rules for 911 emergency communications; a tool that will prevent reactivation of the phone without authorization from the user; and a tool to allow authorized users to restore their data if the phone is recovered.

CTIA had announced those measures and said that the safety and security of wireless users is a paramount concern. The trade group said the California law is unnecessary.

"Today's action was unnecessary given the breadth of action the industry has taken," Jamie Hastings, vice president of CTIA's external and state affairs, said in a statement. "Uniformity in the wireless industry created tremendous benefits for wireless consumers, including lower costs and phenomenal innovation. State by state technology mandates, such as this one, stifle those benefits and are detrimental to wireless consumers."

For more:
- see this WSJ article (sub. req.)
- see this NYT article
- see this Reuters article
- see this CNET article 

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