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California might be first to mandate 'kill switch' for smartphones

Published time: December 19, 2013 19:03
Reuters / Danish Siddiqui

Reuters / Danish Siddiqui

The quest to reduce smartphone thefts in the United States is taking a new turn in California, where two state officials plan to introduce legislation mandating “kill switches” in all phones.

On Thursday, Democratic State Senator Mark Leno and San Francisco District Attorney George Gascon announced their intention to introduce a bill requiring all smartphones sold in California to feature technology that would render them inoperable if stolen.

Leno’s bill, which he is expected to introduce in January, would be the first of its kind in the United States. Gascon and New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman have both criticized tech companies such as Apple and Samsung in the past for not doing more to combat rampant smartphone theft in the country.

“One of the top catalysts for street crime in many California cities is smartphone theft, and these crimes are becoming increasingly violent,” Leno said in a statement to the Associated Press. “We cannot continue to ignore our ability to utilize existing technology to stop cell phone thieves in their tracks. It is time to act on this serious public safety threat to our communities.”

According to the Federal Communications Commission, nearly one in three U.S. robberies involve mobile phones. The district attorney’s office in San Francisco has also revealed details showing more than 50 percent of all robberies in the city involve mobile devices, while phone thefts in Los Angeles have gone up 12 percent over the last year.

Still, at least one trade group, known as CTIA-The Wireless Association, has warned that a kill switch could make smartphones susceptible to hackers, who could theoretically gain unauthorized access to a phone and render it inoperable for its owner. This could potentially impact law enforcement officials and other federal agencies.

Under a deadline handed out by Gascon and Schneiderman, phone companies have until June 2014 to come up with a satisfactory solution to the problem.

Earlier this year, Samsung reportedly offered to install kill switches in its devices but was rebuffed by wireless carriers who feared it would cut into their sales of phone insurance. An investigation of the issue is currently underway.

Apple attempted to preempt action from lawmakers by introducing an iPhone feature called “Activation Lock,” which halts all phone functionality if someone tries to turn off a separate feature that locates missing phones without entering the correct password. Whether or not Activation Lock is an effective anti-theft feature, though, remains to be seen.

Other smartphone makers such as Microsoft and Google have been mostly silent on the issue.

“I appreciate the efforts that many of the manufacturers are making, but the deadline we agreed upon is rapidly approaching and most do not have a technological solution in place," Gascón said to the Huffington Post. "Californians continue to be victimized at an alarming rate, and this legislation will compel the industry to make the safety of their customers a priority."