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States Evaluating Smartphone ‘Kill Switch’ Legislation

California, Illinois, Minnesota and New York are at the forefront of proposed laws that would short-circuit stolen mobile devices.

by / March 7, 2014
Legislation is being discussed to help dissuade thieves from stealing smartphones. Flikr/ Ed Yourdon

Your brand new smartphone is gone – stolen from right under your nose. If you’ve got insurance, you can probably get another one fairly quickly. If not, prepare to fork over hundreds of dollars for a replacement. Mobile device theft has become a major issue in the U.S., as thieves capitalize on society’s obsession with the latest technology.

But a partial solution to the cellphone robbery problem may be around the corner. Legislators in California, Illinois, Minnesota and New York have proposed laws in the last few months that require manufacturers to install a “kill switch” in smartphones to render the devices useless if lost or stolen.

Minnesota has taken the lead, with lawmakers introducing legislation on both the state and federal levels. The state proposal, House File 1952, requires any smartphone sold or purchased in Minnesota to have a kill switch that wipes all saved data and makes the devices inoperable on any wireless network in the world. The capability must also, however, be reversible if the phone is recovered by the proper owner.

Authored by Rep. Joe Atkins, DFL-Inver Grove Heights, HF 1952 was re-referred to the Minnesota House of Representatives Committee on Commerce and Consumer Protection Finance and Policy on March 3, where it awaits a hearing. California’s Senate Bill 962, sponsored by Sen. Mark Leno, D-San Francisco; and Illinois’ SB 3539, authored by Sen. Toi Hutchinson, D-Chicago Heights; are also moving through their respective states’ legislatures.

U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., introduced federal legislation about kill switches in January -- S.2032, the Smartphone Theft Prevention Act. It has been matched by a similar bill in the U.S. House of Representatives, H.R. 4065, which was authored by New York Rep. José Serrano, D-N.Y. Both proposals are pending in Senate and House committees, respectively.

“We need to crack down on these criminals who are stealing and reselling these devices, costing consumers more than $30 billion every year and threatening public safety,” said Klobuchar in a statement. “With nearly one-in-three robberies involving phone theft, this legislation will take important steps to protect the identity of victims and cut the incentive for criminals to target smart phones.”

In an interview with Government Technology, Atkins explained that he’d like to see wireless carriers adopt the kill switch as a standard on their own, as there is “clear customer demand” for it. The state legislation is intended to push the industry in that direction.

According to a report in the Star Tribune, Atkins’ bill is popular with local law enforcement, including the University of Minnesota police, who have seen a 27 percent jump in cellphone robberies in five years.

Cybersecurity Concerns

One of the major fears about including a kill switch in smartphones is the potential for abuse. If hackers are able to gain access to the switches, there’s no telling what the financial impact would be on consumers whose phones were cut off, not to mention the general havoc such a situation could cause.

Jeff Kagan, a technology industry analyst, told Government Technology that he was concerned that states were considering their own legislative answers to mobile device theft. He felt a broader, national response from the private sector was more appropriate. He added that governments typically use a “heavy hand” on technology issues and believes the industry needs to step up to the plate and come up with a solution that meets the needs of all parties quickly.

Atkins said he’s aware of the concerns, particularly over the potential misuse of kill switch technology, and drafted HF 1952 in such a way so that experts could find the best solution.

“This is why we’re trying to avoid legislating any technological details in our bill,” he said. “Instead, we’re trying to establish our expectations of what the technology should do for the consumer, at a minimum, and leave it up to carriers and manufacturers to find the best way to accomplish the task for their products and networks.”

CTIA – The Wireless Association, which represents the carriers, declined to speak with Government Technology on the issue, referring questions about HF 1952 to the organization’s filed testimony in opposition to Atkins’ bill.

In his written testimony, CTIA's John Marinho, vice president, Technology and Cybersecurity, said the industry and its members share the concerns over mobile device theft, but felt there were two fundamental technical problems that make HF 1952 “unworkable.”

Marinho said that while a number of solutions exist to remotely lock and wipe a device, the technology is constantly changing to respond to new threats. He believes HF 1952 would “stifle innovation” and hurt consumers. Marinho added that the legislation will hinder federal efforts to strengthen cybersecurity and may undermine the work being done.

Atkins felt there could be some misunderstanding with the carriers about what his bill intends.

“I know that the carriers read the first draft of my bill and thought that we wanted something that would physically ruin the phone, frying a circuit or some other kind of Mission: Impossible-type self-destruction,” he said. “That’s not what we’re looking for, and we’ve had some productive discussions since we figured out that misunderstanding.”

Atkins added that he plans to tweak HF 1952 to “get better language” about what he wants the kill switch technology to do and clear up expectations regarding the bill.

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Brian Heaton

Brian Heaton was a writer for Government Technology magazine from 2011 to mid-2015.

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