California Enacts Smart Phone Kill Switch Law

California Enacts Smart Phone Kill Switch Law

Technology saves the day

California governor Jerry Brown on Monday signed off on a "kill switch" bill that is aimed at sharply curbing smart phone theft. The law—which will impact smart phone sales throughout the US and the world—goes into effect in July 2015 and requires smart phone makers to build a software switch into their devices that would render them useless if stolen.

"California has just put smart phone thieves on notice," said California state senator and kill switch bill author Mark Leno. "Our efforts will effectively wipe out the incentive to steal smart phones and curb this crime of convenience, which is fueling street crime and violence within our communities."

California isn't the first state to enact such a law, as Minnesota got there first in May. But California has such a huge population that laws and regulations there often force manufacturers to change their products for all customers. Thus, this law should impact the rest of the country—and perhaps the world—even if other governments don't enact similar legislation. Indeed, the state of California worked closely with the state of New York and the mayor of London on the initiative that led to this law.

However it happens, kill switches will almost certainly become a stock feature of all smart phone platforms moving forward.

The law is as simple as it should be effective. By requiring device makers to build kill switches into their smart phones, California is effectively obsoleting a public safety crisis. According to a study tied to the kill switch bill, 3.1 million smart phones were stolen in the United States in 2013, nearly double the number of thefts from a year earlier. So many iPhones are stolen that some law enforcement agencies now refer to this act as "Apple picking."

A smart phone kill switch will turn the device into a "brick" when stolen, meaning it will be useless to the thief or any of their potential black market customers. What's amazing is that the CTIA, an influential trade group for US wireless carriers, actually lobbied to stop this bill from becoming law, arguing that it was "infeasible and unwise." Not a single wireless carrier offered a kill switch on their own, even though doing so would in fact be relatively simple. (The CTIA reversed its position this year when it became obvious it was swimming against the tide.)

This kind of pushback has ample precedent. Automobile makers, for example, have lobbied extensively over the years to prevent safety features like seat belts and air bags from becoming required features, often citing costs as the rationale.

But in this case, smart phone makers are actually ahead of the curve. Apple iPhone, Google Android, and Windows Phone OS all include "find my phone" features that have led in some cases to smart phone owners recovering their stolen phones. But Apple in 2013 took the next step, introducing a feature called "Activation Lock" to its iOS mobile OS. Samsung rolled out a similar (hey, it's Samsung) feature called "Reactivation Lock" in April 2014.

Google plans to implement a kill switch in "the next version of Android," though it's not clear if that's the Android L release that's expected in September or a later version. And Microsoft has pledged to implement a kill switch in Windows Phone 9 "Threshold," which is expected before the July 2015 deadline.

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