California closer to smartphone ‘kill switch’ law

CC-licensed, Aquilaonline, via Flickr.

CC-licensed, Aquilaonline, via Flickr.

SACRAMENTO — The state where the iPhone was born came a step closer to a law that might help keep it in your hands.

State Sen. Mark Leno’s Smartphone Theft Prevention Act (Senate Bill 962) passed the state legislature this morning with a 51-18 vote. Now it will move on to the Senate for a vote on amendments.

California won’t be the first state to flip the kill switch – that distinction goes to Minnesota, which heeded the call from consumers in May. If the law passes in the most populous state in the U.S. and the birthplace of the iPhone, it may mark a sea change in similar legislation. California’s law will affect any smartphone manufactured on or after July 1, 2015.

At a time when almost half of all Americans walk around with smartphones, the expensive devices make easy targets. Consumer Reports estimates that about 1.6 million cell phones were stolen in the US during 2012 and these cell phone swipes represent about half of all thefts in most major cities.

Survey of 1,200 smartphone owners by Creighton University Heider College, March 2014.

Survey of 1,200 smartphone owners by Creighton University Heider College, March 2014.

A recent poll by William Duckworth at Creighton University of 1,200 people who carry their work and personal lives around in their pockets found them overwhelmingly in favor of a kill switch. With Bill 962, retailers who sell smartphones in California or ship them to buyers in California sans kill switch risk a civil penalty from $500 to $2,500. Phones made before January 1, 2015 without an easy retrofit and those sold on the aftermarket (think: Craig’s list) don’t have to comply.

“To be effective, antitheft technological solutions need to be ubiquitous, as thieves cannot distinguish between those smartphones that have the solutions enabled and those that do not,” the text of the bill states. The switch must be able to “withstand a hard reset or operating system downgrade,” come pre-equipped on the phone with the default setting as “on.” Authorized users, however, can opt out.

Microsoft and Apple have removed obstacles to supporting the measure. Electronics giant LG, which is already working on an internal kill switch, has also teamed up with McAfee Mobile Security to add antivirus, data backup, remote lock and wipe, and remote tracking to the company’s handsets.  The idea is to “empower users to live a safer, worry-free digital life,” said John Giamatteo, senior vice president and general manager, McAfee consumer business.

Unsurprisingly, companies who peddle security measures are against the measure.

“This is a law that only the over-privileged could love,” Sean Sullivan, security advisor at F-Secure Labs says. “By the time it (the kills switch) is in everybody’s hands…there will be some work around. That’s always what happens.”

Others maintain that any measure to keep $800 devices is simply good public policy.

“Allowing for smartphone owners to disable their phone in the event their phone is stolen would serve to deter criminals from attempting to steal the smartphone in the first place,” says David Reischer, attorney and founder of LegalAdvice.com. “Opposition against the bill that argue states should not be allowed to regulate products sold nationally is not a very compelling argument.”

Another thing that may die along with the kill switch: the smartphone insurance market. According to Duckworth’s research, Americans spend $1.1 billion replacing stolen phones and another $5.5 billion paying for premium cellphone insurance policies yearly.

About the author

Nicole MartinelliNicole Martinelli heads up Cult of Mac Magazine, our weekly publication available on iTunes. You can find her on Twitter and Google+. If you're doing something new, cool and Apple-related, email her.

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