Smartphones to Get Kill Switches in California to Deter Theft

The new requirement, signed into law Aug. 25 by California Gov. Jerry Brown and taking effect on July 1, 2015, will likely affect other states around the nation.

kill switch

California now requires all smartphones sold in the state after July 1, 2015, to include a "kill switch" that can be remotely activated to disable a stolen phone and turn it into a useless brick as part of a strategy to end the problem of cell phones being stolen during the commission of violent street crimes.

Gov. Jerry Brown signed the new kill switch law, Senate Bill 962, into effect on Aug. 25, requiring cell phone makers to include kill switch methods in their handsets if the devices are intended for sale in California, according to an announcement from the law's author, state Sen. Mark Leno, D-S.F. The law was enacted to fight a "growing epidemic of smartphone theft" in the state, which often resulted in violent attacks over a phone.

Under the new law, new cell phones sold in the state after July 1, 2015, will have to prompt consumers to enable a kill switch as the default setting during the initial setup of a new smartphone, according to Leno's office.

"California has just put smartphone thieves on notice," Leno said in a statement. "Starting next year, all smartphones sold in California, and most likely every other state in the union, will come equipped with theft deterrent technology when they purchase new phones. Our efforts will effectively wipe out the incentive to steal smartphones and curb this crime of convenience, which is fueling street crime and violence within our communities."

Smartphone theft has been a growing problem across the nation, according to figures from Consumer Reports that were provided by Leno's office. There were some 1.6 million smartphone theft victims in 2012, which doubled to 3.1 million by 2013, a 94 percent increase in a single year, according to the figures.

The problem is most prevalent in California's largest cities, according to the figures, with 67 percent of all robberies in San Francisco involving the theft of a mobile device, and in Oakland, where some 75 percent of all robberies involved a communications device. "Los Angeles has seen a 30 percent increase in smartphone theft since 2011, while San Diego has experienced a 34 percent increase," according to Leno's office. "In Sacramento, 22 percent of all robberies involve the theft of a smartphone."

With the new kill switches installed and enabled in smartphones in the future, thieves will hopefully have no more desires to steal phones because they will be worthless if they can't be used, San Francisco District Attorney George Gascón said in a statement.

"Seldom can a public safety crisis be addressed by a technological solution, but today wireless consumers everywhere can breathe a sigh of relief," he said. "Soon, stealing a smartphone won’t be worth the trouble, and these violent street crimes will be a thing of the past. The devices we use every day will no longer make us targets for violent criminals."

The 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 Leno's office. 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, which are only available today to consumers who choose to find and enable such mechanisms on their portable devices.

While the new kill switch law is only for California, it's believed that smartphone makers will incorporate and include the kill switches in all devices that they sell in the United States starting next summer. That's because they presently don't offer devices with special features just for some states. That's different from the auto industry, where vehicles sold in California have more stringent and complicated emissions systems than vehicles sold in the rest of the nation.

This is certainly not the first time that kill switches are being included in mobile phones.

iPhones running Apple's iOS 7, which was introduced in June 2013, include a feature called Activation Lock that can wipe and disable a stolen iPhone, according to an earlier eWEEK report. This past June, Google and Microsoft announced that they will join Apple in incorporating kill switches into their software designs as well. After the introduction of Activation Lock, thefts of iPhones fell by 19 percent in New York City, 25 percent in London and 38 percent in San Francisco, according to statistics released by the cities.

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

In November 2013, attorneys general from 31 U.S. states jointly sent a letter to the heads of major smartphone manufacturers Google, Microsoft, Motorola and Samsung calling for the rapid implementation of a kill switch in their phones. The goal is to dry up the secondary market in stolen phones, New York Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman said in a press release.