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California Lawmakers Give Smartphone Kill Switches Thumbs Up

First Posted: Aug 13, 2014 01:03 PM EDT
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Lawmakers in California approved a bill Monday that would mandate "kill switches" on smartphones sold in the state. If the piece of legislation gets Gov. Jerry Brown's blessing, it would make California the second state to pass such a law.

The so-called kill switches would paralyze a smartphone in the wrong hands, protecting the owner's information. Senate bill 962 also makes provisions for recovering the device and simple tricks like "downgrading the operating system," according to The Washington Post.

Bill author Sen. Mark Leno, a Democrat, and sponsor San Francisco District Attorney George Gascón unveiled the proposition back in February. Since then, only Minnesota has beaten California to implementing antitheft measures on cellphones. 

"Today's vote on the Assembly floor is a huge victory for California's smartphone consumers and mobile users across the nation who are regularly victimized for their cell phones," said Leno in a statement.

"With law enforcement agencies reporting a drop in thefts of phones that already provide kill switches to their customers, it is clear that this is an idea whose time has come."

Smartphone-related crime has doubled in recent years, hitting 3.1 million incidents in 2013 compared to 1.6 million in 2012. In San Francisco, smartphone robbery accounts for 65 percent of thefts, a number that rises by 10 percentage points in nearby Oakland. Policy makers fear the trend will only continue as more and more Americans use smartphones and store vital personal data on it.

Major telecommunications companies such as Apple, Google, Verizon, and AT&T have all removed their opposition to the kill-switch bill, signaling a shift in the urgency. The FCC held a workshop in June encouraging firms to adopt the necessary technology -- a tactic that may have paid some dividends.

"The issue has been identified. The low-hanging fruit solutions to this issue have been picked. It's time to climb higher up the tree," said FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler during the event.

Unlike a voluntary agreement by the Wireless Association, the law would make it mandatory for smartphones to come pre-equipped with kill switches. The voluntary agreement consists of software that users would have to locate and download themselves, leaving openings to malicious hackers. Consumers would still have the option to opt out of a model with such technology under Leno's bill.

"We are on the verge of implementing regulations that will have tremendous benefits to public safety," said San Francisco District Attorney George Gascón. "With the manufacturers who sell 97% of smartphones in the United States having removed their opposition, the remaining opponents are out of legitimate reasons to oppose this commonsense measure. We are on the eve of securing wireless consumers everywhere from the violent threat of theft."

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