California Passes Mandatory "Kill Switch" Bill To Deter Phone Thefts

Over three million devices were reported stolen in 2013. Could new legislation help curb the epidemic?

Smartphone thefts hit an all-time high in 2013. In San Francisco, thefts soared 23%, totaling 2,400. Meanwhile in New York, Apple devices (8,465 of them) made up more than 18% of all grand larcenies. In all, some 3 million Americans reported having their phones stolen last year—double the rate of 2012. Sometimes those robberies end up fatal.

One of the proposed solutions has long been to implement a "kill switch" in smartphones, which would remotely render your phone little more than an artfully chamfered paperweight should it be stolen. In theory, a kill switch should make it more difficult for thieves to resell devices.

On Monday, California officially became the first state to mandate the security feature on phones when Gov. Jerry Brown signed a kill switch bill into law. First introduced in February by Sen. Mark Leno, it would require all phones—and phones only—sold after July 1, 2015 to come with an option to wipe the phone remotely and render it unusable. Minnesota passed its own kill switch bill in May, but it did not require the security measure to come on phones by default.

The thinking goes that if all phones are made inoperable when stolen, slowly but surely, the theft rate will go down. Even if a bricked device could somehow be reactivated, it might not be worth the effort.

Building the kill switch into phones has been met with fierce opposition from carriers like AT&T and Verizon, which have argued that resellers will still find a workaround. Proponents like San Francisco district attorney George Gascón have accused the carriers of not wanting to implement such a kill switch for fear they would eat into the generous phone-insurance deals they currently have in place. In other words: They may be putting consumer lives at risk for profit.

Another line of argument against the kill switch points out that the feature is ripe for abuse, and hackers will have a field day bricking phones of unsuspecting targets.

In any case, it will be interesting to see if more states end up following California's lead. Said Senator Leno in a statement: "California has just put smartphone thieves on notice."

[h/t: CNet]

[Photo: Flickr user Olle Svensson]

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