California's Smartphone Kill-Switch Law Now in Effect

All new smartphones sold in California after July 1 must include kill-switch capabilities that remotely make the phones inoperative if lost or stolen.

smartphones, remote wipe, kill-switch, smartphone thefts, California laws

Smartphone thefts in California are expected to continue a downward trend now that the state's new "kill-switch" law went into effect on July 1.

The law, which requires every new cell phone sold in the state to prompt consumers to enable kill switches as the default setting during the initial setup of their devices, aims to make stolen phones worthless so that thieves will be deterred from robbing citizens of their phones. Phone thefts in public places have been a common crime, victimizing what had been a growing number of smartphone owners, according to government statistics.

In December 2014, the Federal Communications Commission released a 137-page study, called the "Report of Technological Advisory Council (TAC) Subcommittee on Mobile Device Theft Prevention," which concluded that mobile phone thefts occur at least 1 million times a year in the United States, according to an earlier eWEEK report. At least one-tenth of all thefts and robberies committed in the United States are associated with the theft of a mobile device, and those figures could be understated, the report concluded. The TAC report was compiled because smartphone theft was identified as a major issue facing consumers, law enforcement and the mobile device ecosystem, according to the FCC.

In San Francisco, 59 percent of the some 4,000 robberies in 2013 involved the theft of a smartphone, according to the TAC report, with the victims of those robberies ultimately recovering fewer than one in 10 stolen smartphones. Apple smartphones constituted 69 percent of the smartphones stolen in San Francisco robberies.

In New York City, smartphone thefts represented an increasing share of all thefts between 2010 and 2013, with the percentage of larcenies from a person involving a smartphone increasing from 47 percent to 55 percent, and the percentage of robberies involving a smartphone increasing from 40 percent to 46 percent, the report continued. In 2013, more than one-quarter of all thefts and 55 percent of grand larcenies from a person involved a smartphone.

Nationally in 2012, about 1.6 million Americans had their smartphones stolen in 2012, according to research by Consumer Reports. In 2013, 3.1 million victims reported such a crime, which was a 94 percent increase in just one year, the group reported.

Since Apple added its own kill-switch, called Activation Lock, to its iPhones as an opt-in feature in iOS 7 and as an opt-out feature in iOS 8 (in September 2014), the market for stolen smartphones has apparently been decreasing since they can be disabled remotely by the victims of the thefts.

A recent study by Consumer Reports found that smartphone thefts dropped to 2.1 million in 2014, down one-third from 3.1 million in 2013, providing some early evidence that the desired outcome of the kill-switch law is working.

San Francisco District Attorney George Gascón lauded the new law, which he said will finally protect consumers who were victims of often-brazen cell phone thefts for years "because the wireless industry failed to safeguard its products," he said in a July 1 statement. "Today that changes. ... We're already witnessing a worldwide reduction in smartphone robberies following the limited implementation of this technology. As this technology is implemented ubiquitously, and as older phones are slowly phased out, I expect this epidemic to become a thing of the past."

The California kill-switch law had the support of statewide law-enforcement groups, including the California District Attorneys Association, California Police Chiefs Association and California Sheriffs Association, according to the office of state Senator Mark Leno. Wireless companies, including Apple, AT&T, BlackBerry, Google, Microsoft, Samsung and Verizon, eventually removed their earlier opposition to the bill, Leno's office reported.

Users of new phones that include the kill switches will have to opt out to disable the kill switches.

While the new kill switch law is only for California, it's believed that smartphone makers will continue to incorporate and include the kill switches in all devices that they sell in the United States.

Kill switches have for years been a prevalent feature in enterprise devices, but the technology has been slow to arrive in the consumer realm.