California Senate Bill Proposes Smartphone Kill Switch

Bill would force tech companies to install anti-theft features on mobile devices.

Water is splashed on the Sony Xperia Z1 smartphone in the Sony booth at the 2014 International CES at the Las Vegas Convention Center on Jan. 8, 2014, in Las Vegas.

A California bill would require cellphone makers to add anti-theft tech to smartphones.

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A bill introduced in the California State Senate Friday would tackle the rising threat of mobile device theft by requiring tech companies to install an anti-theft kill switch feature on their tablets and smartphones.  

Citing research from Consumer Reports that 1.6 million Americans were robbed for their smartphones in 2012, California Democratic Sen. Mark Leno introduced a bill that would prohibit companies including Apple and Verizon Wireless from selling phones in California unless they carry a pre-enabled kill switch that renders the device useless once it is reported stolen. Existing anti-theft features include the Activation Lock available on the iPhone.

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California is the largest state economy in the U.S. and the home of Silicon Valley, so any regulation on devices passed there would likely force tech companies to invest in a kill switch for all its devices, rather than spend even more to add features only for devices sold in that state.

“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. “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.”

The Cellular Telecommunications and Internet Association trade group has said a kill switch could prevent the chance for users to reclaim their phones if they device were disconnected and because hackers could hijack the switch to disable phones. Consumers would be able to opt-out of using that kill switch technology if the bill passed, but service providers could not encourage customers to do so, Leno said.  
The release announcing the bill noted that the theft of mobile devices accounts for one-third of all robberies in the U.S., making it the nation’s top property crime. San Francisco District Attorney George Gascón supports the bill.

“This legislation will require the industry to stop debating the possibility of implementing existing technological theft solutions, and begin embracing the inevitability,” Gascón said in the release.