The national debate over whether government should force wireless carriers to install antitheft technology on smartphones seeped down to the local level Tuesday as a San Francisco supervisor announced she will write legislation requiring any phone sold in the city to have a kill switch.
The proposal by Supervisor London Breed comes two days before the state Senate is set to reconsider a bill that would mandate such technology on all phones sold in California - legislation that fell two votes short of passing last month after heavy lobbying by the wireless industry.
Breed said she will model her local legislation on the statewide bill written by Democratic state Sen. Mark Leno of San Francisco.
Breed said on Tuesday she was disappointed that state lawmakers rejected the bill and was asking the city attorney's office to draft a local ordinance.
Supporters of such laws say that if kill switches, which can make stolen phones inoperable, were ubiquitous, thieves would have no incentive to steal the devices. The antitheft tool allows users to erase their personal data and render phones inoperable remotely if they are lost or stolen. If a phone is recovered, the owner can turn it on and restore data.
Smartphone theft is rampant: It made up 67 percent of San Francisco robberies in the first few months of 2014, according to law enforcement authorities. Nationally, phone thefts increased 94 percent between 2012 and 2013, according to Consumer Reports.
"This is a serious public safety issue," Breed said. "I have witnessed cell phone theft myself, and victims are left helpless or injured. ... We are a technologically advanced society, and this software exists. We need to make sure to aggressively push the industry in this direction, so they are prepared to do this not only in San Francisco but all over the country."
Jamie Hastings, a vice president at CTIA, a wireless-industry trade association, said the group remains opposed to requiring kill switches on smartphones.
She noted that CTIA last month announced a long list of smartphone makers and wireless carriers that will voluntarily offer an optional and reversible kill switch starting next year and that there are many stolen phone databases.
"As with any software or computer-based system, a 'kill switch' is not impregnable, and focusing the industry on one technical solution increases risks of exploitation," Hastings said in a written statement. "Hackers and cybercriminals are very sophisticated and adept at evolving their threat techniques to circumvent protection solutions. It is this dynamic that places security as a top priority for the wireless industry and drives a constant evolution and broad diversity of technology and solutions."
But industry critics, including San Francisco District Attorney George Gascón, say the technology needs to be automatically included on smartphones to truly provide a disincentive to robbers.
Breed said she would much prefer statewide legislation to a local ban, but a San Francisco law would send an important message and, she hopes, spread to other cities.
She doubts the cell phone industry would pack up and leave a "hot" city like San Francisco with its lucrative market, but if any individual cell phone manufacturers chose to bow out of the city, Breed said, it would create a competitive advantage for other companies.
"I want the cell phone industry to know they cannot lobby their way past public safety concerns," she said. "If Sacramento does not act, San Francisco will, and other cities will follow."
©2014 the San Francisco Chronicle