California Gov. Jerry Brown signed legislation today, Aug. 25, that requires all smartphones sold in the state to be equipped with kill-switch functionality.

The law, led by San Francisco District Attorney George Gascon and sponsored by Sen. Mark Leno, is a big step forward for supporters of an issue that has spurred debate among politicians, technologists and the public. Minnesota is the only other state to have passed similar legislation, which will be enforced starting July 2015. And California is the first state to pass legislation that requires devices to have kill-switch functionality enabled by default.

Given the size of California’s economy and the influence the state has on technology trends, the new law could prove a turning point in the mobile device industry.

Opponents of the legislation, like CTIA - The Wireless Association, say the law is unnecessary and will ultimately hurt consumers. Jamie Hastings, CTIA vice president of external and state affairs, noted that there are already stolen phone databases, consumer education campaigns and kill-switch apps on the market.

“Passage of SB 962 by the California Assembly was unnecessary given the breadth of action the industry has taken,” he said. “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.”

Leno responded by saying that in a perfect world, Congress would implement national legislation requiring device manufacturers to include a kill-switch in their devices across the nation. But instead, it’s California’s charge to lead the way.

“This is a situation where we have a growing epidemic of crime, and Congress is not acting,” Leno said. “We need to do something, and so that’s what we’re doing. California, and we’ve seen this before, oftentimes when a decision is made, here it becomes the de facto way of doing business across the country.”

Minnesota’s legislation misses the mark, Leno said, because it does not require the kill-switch option to be enabled by default, which means it won’t be an effective theft deterrent. “We’ll only be effective if we can get into the mind of every potential criminal that it is not worth his time or risk because the phone will be worthless,” Leno said. “We don’t want to deny you consumer choice, but otherwise it is there when you activate your phone.”

New York is moving forward with similar legislation, Leno said, and together, California and New York could be enough to tip manufacturers toward making the kill-switch a standard device feature. Several CTIA members that initially opposed the legislation -- including Apple, Microsoft, Samsung, Blackberry, Google, AT&T and Verizon -- dropped their opposition and appear to be embracing the technology. In a recent blog postMicrosoft showcased anti-theft functionality in its newer devices, but the company declined to comment on the new law.

Organizations like the Electronic Frontier Foundation opposed the legislation at its introduction in June, and maintains that technological mandates hamper innovation. “Technology is fast; the law is slow,” EFF’s Adi Kamar wrote in a blog post. Technological mandates “lock in” technologies that meet legal requirements, but, Kamar wrote, they aren’t necessarily the best solutions -- and they prevent other technologies that might be better from catching on.

Legislation like California’s kill-switch law also presents an opportunity for abuse, Kamar wrote. “We were especially concerned with giving government actors any more ability to shut off cell phones after wireless service was shut off during the 2011 BART protests,” he wrote.

California subsequently passed a law that prevents law enforcement from disabling communications services, but that legislation is set to soon expire, and Kamar noted that guaranteeing every phone to have a kill switch in some ways legitimizes the act of disabling someone’s phone.

EFF Senior Staff Attorney Lee Tien admitted that kill-switch technology does have benefits, and that device theft isn’t something the foundation wants.

“But it’s never a situation where any and all solutions to a problem are equally good,” Tien said. “We’ve had a problem with this bill for a while in that it doesn’t do enough to give the user the ultimate control, as opposed to someone else.”

Tien warned that if California’s bill does lead to a mobile landscape where every device has a kill switch, the technology could be abused by law enforcement or other groups to selectively disable the devices of those they wish to silence.

Colin Wood Colin Wood  |  Staff Writer

Colin has been writing for Government Technology since 2010. He lives in Seattle with his wife and their dog. He can be reached at cwood@govtech.com and on Google+.