Why the kill switch law can make iPhone theft obsolete

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SACRAMENTO — California just flipped the kill switch for smartphones, in a move to make iCrime a thing of the past.

Governor Jerry Brown signed into law State Sen. Mark Leno’s Smartphone Theft Prevention Act (Senate Bill 962). The law will affect any smartphone manufactured on or after July 1, 2015.

There’s some reason to hope that the kill switch will do for smartphones what sophisticated alarm systems did for cars: make stealing them less appealing than a pair of leg warmers. Car thefts plummeted 96 percent  in New York City when engine immobilizer systems came into play.

A recent study estimates that savings from kill switch legislation could total well over $3 billion.

California isn’t be the first state mandate a kill switch – that distinction goes to Minnesota, which heeded the call from consumers in May. But passing a kill switch in the most populous state in the U.S. and the birthplace of the iPhone may mark a sea change in similar legislation.

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. San Francisco’s District Attorney George Gascon, a vocal proponent of the initiative, said the new law would “turn the page” on an “epidemic” impacting millions around the globe.

Microsoft and Apple removed obstacles to supporting the measure earlier this year and electronics giant LG is already working on an internal kill switch.

Under the new law, 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.

Developers Cult of Mac talked to had mixed reactions to the new law.

“Being a power user, I like knowing that my private and business stuff can be locked in case of loss or theft. That can only be a good thing,” says Giacomo Balli, a San Francisco-based developer and consultant with over 50 of his own apps currently in the iTunes store. “As a developer there aren’t any specific concerns a part from, perhaps, managing and changing device IDs, but that’s something that good developers already take into account when, for example, a user buys a new iPhone or adds an iPad.”

Erik LaManna of WillowTree Apps, which has made some 180 apps since 2007, says the kill switch is all well and good, but, as in the brutal case of a recent iPhone theft and murder, what happens next?

“Even with a kill-switch or tracking option, there is also the issue of enforcement and recovering phones,” LaManna says. “There would need to be a commitment on the side of law enforcement to prosecute these thefts and to help recover stolen phones. — Right now there are many cases where a phone user will attempt to track down their stolen phone and confront the thief.”

Other concerns about abuse of the kill switch were raised after civil unrest in Ferguson, Missouri following the shooting of an unarmed teen.

“I’m stunned that a representative from San Francisco can push this, especially after the BART administration shutdown cell phone coverage during the protests of the recent past — I would have thought that libertarians would be in an uproar about this. Do they think such a standard won’t have a ‘backdoor?'” said Sean Sullivan, security advisor at F-Secure Labs.

“This type of feature is best left to the consumer to install by choice, not by mandate,” he added.

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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