California would become the first state in the country to require “kill switches” on smartphones that prompt consumers to activate the antitheft technology under a bill passed by the state Legislature on Monday and sent to Gov. Jerry Brown.
The increasing number of smartphone thefts in California prompted the bill by state Sen. Mark Leno, D-San Francisco, who said consumers would have more control over their personal information if their device is lost or stolen. The antitheft technology, often referred to as a “kill switch,” allows the owner of a smartphone to remotely render it inoperable, which law enforcement officials said would deter thieves who target the devices.
SB962 has been one of the more high-profile and intensely lobbied bills in the Legislature this year, however, in recent months, many of the bill’s opponents have quieted. Major cell phone manufacturers such as Apple and Microsoft removed their opposition.
“This is the first bill of its kind in the country,” Leno said. “I think as any number of issues here in California, when we act it becomes the de facto way business is done across the country. Minnesota passed a bill before ours, but it’s opt-in. That will not make it a universal deterrent.”
Under Leno’s bill, beginning in July 2015, consumers would be prompted during the initial set up of a new cell phone to enable the kill switch. If a consumer chooses to accept all default settings, the kill switch would automatically be enabled.
The wireless industry trade group CTIA fought the kill-switch bill, at first saying the proposal was technically unfeasible, prohibitively expensive and rife for abuse by hackers. After Leno’s bill gained traction, the industry group announced a who’s who of smartphone makers and wireless carriers that had decided to offer the antitheft technology as an optional tool beginning in July 2015. Leno said the industry’s approach didn’t go far enough to put the technology in front of customers and continued to push for his bill.
“We urge the Governor to not sign this bill since uniformity in the wireless industry created tremendous benefits for wireless consumers, including lower costs and phenomenal innovation,” said Jamie Hastings, the group’s vice president of external and state affairs in a statement. “State by state technology mandates, such as this one, stifle those benefits and are detrimental to wireless consumers.”
Leno said requiring cell phone users to actively choose not to turn on the antitheft technology would result in significantly more devices having the kill switch activated. Smartphone thefts have grown increasingly violent as the price for devices has risen to several hundred dollars on the black market.
More than 3.1 million Americans had smartphones stolen in 2013, up from 1.6 million in 2012, according to a Consumer Reports survey. The Federal Communications Commission pegged mobile-device theft as the leading property crime in America.
“The manufacturers have indicated that they will implement this technology nationwide with passage of this bill, and with organized crime rings shipping smartphones stolen in the U.S. overseas, passage of this legislation will have implications for public safety around the globe,” said San Francisco District Attorney George Gascón, who sponsored the bill.
Gascón’s office said more than 65 percent of all robberies in San Francisco involve the theft of a mobile device, while Los Angeles has reported a 30 percent increase since 2011 in smartphone thefts.
Reducing armed robbery
Oakland leaders praised Leno’s bill, saying it offers an innovative strategy to reduce crime. More than 80 percent of armed robberies in Oakland in the first five months of this year involved a cell phone, according to police data.
“This has been a top priority for me and I look forward to Gov. Brown signing this into law so we can deter and reduce the violent armed and strong-arm robberies that have afflicted Oakland and our entire state,” said Oakland City Councilman Dan Kalb, who himself was robbed at gunpoint for his iPhone outside his North Oakland home in 2012.
Leno’s bill would prohibit local governments from enacting their own requirements on cell phone manufacturers, similar to the one San Francisco Supervisor London Breed proposed earlier this year. Breed proposed local legislation requiring kill switches on phones sold in the city after the Senate initially rejected a statewide mandate.
The Senate reconsidered Leno’s bill and narrowly passed it to the Assembly after the senator promised to exclude tablets from the provisions and extend the effective date for smartphones by six months to July 1, 2015.
The bill returned to the Senate on Monday for approval of the amendments. The Senate passed the bill in a bipartisan 27-8 vote. Sen. Ted Gaines, R-Roseville, urged lawmakers to pass the bill, saying he hoped it would free up district attorneys and other law enforcement officials to “focus on more important crime.”
©2014 the San Francisco Chronicle