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

Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton delivers his State of the State address before a joint session of the Legislature on April 30 in St. Paul, Minn. (Tom Olmscheid/AP)

Minnesota on Wednesday passed the nation’s first law requiring smartphones to have the ability to be remotely disabled. 

The law requires smartphone manufacturers to introduce so-called “kill switches” in devices to allow users to make lost or stolen phones unusable. In so doing, the state hopes to remove the incentive for such robberies, which are on the rise. A Consumer Reports survey released last month found that 3.1 million Americans had cellphones stolen in 2013, nearly double the 1.6 million thefts reported the previous year. Some of those robberies can become violent, as was the case for a Minneapolis mayoral candidate who received nine stitches after being assaulted by teenage thieves in December. 

“This law will help combat the growing number of violent cellphone thefts in Minnesota,” Gov. Mark Dayton said in a statement to announce the bill’s signing. Minnesota is the first state to pass such a law. A similar measure is working its way through the California legislature.

Between 30 percent and 40 percent of robberies in cities involve cellphones, according to Federal Communications Commission statistics from 2012. The number of cellphone thefts last year rose in San Francisco, New York, Washington and Philadelphia, the Huffington Post reported.

Businesses and industry groups have argued against imposing kill switch mandates because they could pose risks, such as mistaken or malicious disabling of devices.

“Even if technically feasible to develop, a permanent ‘kill switch’ has very serious risks,” CTIA, a wireless industry association, notes in a fact sheet explaining its position against such requirements. In March, a senior CTIA executive testified before the Minnesota House against a version of the kill switch measure.

But last month, in anticipation of the bill’s passage, CTIA and others announced a voluntary initiative that would give users the same basic capabilities: Users will be able to remotely wipe data and disable a device with the ability to restore service and data once it’s back in the authorized user’s hands. The companies that signed onto the initiative were Apple, Asurion, AT&T, Google, HTC, Huawei, LG, Motorola Mobility, Microsoft, Nokia, Samsung, Sprint, T-Mobile, U.S. Cellular and Verizon Wireless.

Both that voluntary initiative and Minnesota’s go into effect in July 2015. Some devices, such as Apple’s, already have the capability, though many users have to opt in to enable it.

Niraj Chokshi is a general assignment reporter for The Washington Post.

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