California could become the second state to require a cell phone ‘kill switch’


(Rich Pedroncelli/AP)

If Gov. Jerry Brown (D) approves, California could become the second state to require cellphone “kill switches.”

The Senate on Monday gave final approval to a bill that would require phones made after July 1, 2015, to include a feature that renders them inoperable if they fall into the wrong hands. That process would have to be reversible if the rightful owner gets the phone back, and it would have to be resistant to simple workarounds, such as downgrading the operating system.

“This legislation will literally stop smartphone thieves in their tracks by ensuring all new smartphones sold in California come pre-enabled with theft-deterrent technology,” the bill’s sponsor, Sen. Mark Leno, said in a statement after the bill passed the Assembly last week. He, San Francisco District Attorney George Gascón, and others unveiled the bill in February.

Proponents of kill switches hope that they will thwart the growing problem of sometimes-violent cellphone theft by rendering stolen phones useless. Opponents and industry officials say it could invite threats to privacy and security.

In 2012, more than half the thefts in San Francisco and more than three in four in Oakland involved a smartphone, according to a Senate analysis of the bill citing data from Gascón’s office. Cities across the nation have reported similar trends in recent years.

Even if Brown signs off on the bill, though, tech-friendly California won’t be the first state to pass such a mandate. That distinction goes to Minnesota, which in May passed its “kill switch” law. In announcing that bill, Gov. Mark Dayton (D) said it would help prevent violent cellphone theft. A Minneapolis mayoral candidate last year received nine stitches after just such an attack. A set of four Democratic senators introduced a similar federal bill in February.

Kill switch opponents cite a variety of concerns, including the fear that hackers could take advantage of the capability.

“Although well-intentioned … [the California bill] is not only unnecessary, but will have negative consequences to consumer security and public safety,” the CTIA, a wireless industry trade group, has said in a letter co-signed by interest groups and more than half a dozen tech giants including Microsoft, Motorola, Google and the four national wireless carriers, AT&T, Sprint, Verizon and T-Mobile.

The four carriers agreed last November to join an international database of lost or stolen devices and there are existing ways to wipe or disable phones remotely, they argue. Such requirements also raise First Amendment and privacy concerns and should not be set at the state level.

The groups say they support federal legislation on the issue, specifically a bill introduced by Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) several times over the past few years that would criminalize tampering with a cellphone’s unique identifier number. The CTIA and participating carriers announced a voluntary initiative to thwart cellphone theft in April. CTIA has spoken out against similar initiatives in Rhode Island and Minnesota.

Read more:

* Minnesota passes nation’s first smartphone ‘kill switch’ law

* The bill, SB 962.

* CTIA Vice President John Marinho’s June testimony opposing the California bill

* Curbing phone theft is all good. Installing ‘kill switches’ is not, some critics say.

Niraj Chokshi reports for GovBeat, The Post's state and local policy blog.
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Niraj Chokshi · August 12