California Lays Down the Kill-Switch Law

California has become the second state to require that smartphones have a built-in kill switch. The new law goes a step beyond the one Minnesota adopted earlier this year, requiring that the remote disabling capability be turned on by default rather than offered as an opt-in feature. The measure could lead to a sharp downturn in smartphone theft, which has escalated in recent years.

Gov. Jerry Brown on Monday signed into law a bill requiring that anti-theft measures be incorporated into all smartphones sold within California. The measure applies to phones manufactured after July 1, 2015.

Though it doesn’t specify the particular technologies used to enable that capability — both hardware and software solutions are possibilities — Senate Bill 962 does require that the feature, often referred to as a “kill switch,” give smartphone users the ability to remotely disable their devices in the event they’re lost or stolen.

Sen. Mark Leno, D-San Francisco, and Assemblymember Nancy Skinner, D-Berkeley, authored the bill, which was designed in part to combat the increasing prevalence of smartphone theft.

“Getting mugged or robbed just because you have your cellphone in your hand is soon to be a thing of the past,” said Skinner, calling the signing of the bill into law “a victory for consumer safety.”

In May, Minnesota became the first state to adopt kill-switch legislation.

‘A Big Plus’

Some 1.6 million Americans were victims of handheld device theft in 2012, according to the National Consumers League.

Zeroing in on California, roughly 50 percent of property crimes in San Francisco involve mobile devices, Skinner said, while about 60 percent of last year’s thefts and robberies in Oakland involved a cellphone.

“Anything that lets us lock, wipe and disable our wireless phones when they are lost or stolen is a big plus,” wireless industry analyst Jeff Kagan told the E-Commerce Times.

No More ‘Apple Picking’

In particular, smartphone kill switches target a crime referred to as “Apple picking,” where thieves steal iPhones from consumers and then resell them, noted Carl Howe, vice president for data sciences research at 451 Research.

“The concept of the kill switch is that if the original owner of the phone can render the phone useless remotely, then thieves won’t bother stealing the phone in the first place,” he explained.

Yet California’s legislation goes further than Minnesota’s does, Howe pointed out, by requiring the kill switch capability to be turned on by default. Minnesota requires only that consumers have the ability to opt into a kill switch, he told the E-Commerce Times.

‘Detrimental to Wireless Consumers’

While smartphone manufacturers such as Apple, Samsung, Motorola, HTC, Huawei and Nokia have supported the kill switch concept, “debate on the topic has largely come from mobile operators who view it as unnecessary regulation that will stifle other ways of addressing the problem,” Howe noted.

Indeed, CTIA – the Wireless Association has criticized the California law.

“The safety and security of wireless users is the wireless industry’s top priority, and we’ve taken significant actions to provide consumers with the tools and information needed to help deter smartphone theft,” said Jamie Hastings, the trade group’s vice president of external and state affairs.

Those actions include setting up stolen-phone databases, running consumer education campaigns, developing anti-theft apps and establishing the Smartphone Anti-Theft Voluntary Commitment.

“Yesterday’s action was unnecessary given the breadth of action the industry has taken,” Hastings added. “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.”

‘The End of That Debate’

There are other possible reasons for the industry’s opposition, however.

“Many mobile operators see significant revenue from insurance that covers stolen phones, and reducing thefts could reduce consumer perception that they need such insurance and thereby reduce that revenue stream,” Howe explained.

“California’s new law will presumably begin the end of that debate,” he predicted, “as mobile operators now start working to implementing the new mandate for their devices.”

Katherine Noyes has been reporting on business and technology for decades. You can find her on Twitter and Google+.

Leave a Comment

Please sign in to post or reply to a comment. New users create a free account.

Related Stories

E-Commerce Times Channels