State legislation aims to mandate smartphone kill switches 

click to enlarge kill switch
  • courtesy photo
  • Tech experts joined the San Francisco District Attorney's Office on July 18, 2013, to test anti-theft technology on Apple and Samsung smartphones.
State legislation being unveiled Friday and aimed at reducing mobile-device thefts would mandate that all such products sold in California after this year have kill-switch technology at the time of sale.

Since last year, District Attorney George Gascón has been among those leading the charge to make mobile devices such as tablets and smartphones less attractive to thieves — especially as they were targeted in more than 50 percent of all robberies in The City.

Mobile-device theft also is now the No. 1 property crime in the U.S., according to the Federal Communications Commission, accounting for one-third of all robberies.

A joint effort by Gascón and state Sen. Mark Leno, D-San Francisco, calls on manufacturers and wireless carriers to include a means for rendering devices useless in the event of loss or theft. The so-called kill switches are viewed by law enforcement and others as a top theft deterrent.

Gascón and Leno announced late last year their intent to create a bill to mandate the kill switches in the state, which will be officially unveiled Friday.

“This is an important day for wireless consumers everywhere,” Gascón said in a statement regarding Senate Bill 962. “This legislation will require the industry to stop debating the possibility of implementing existing technological theft solutions and begin embracing the inevitability. The wireless industry must take action to end the victimization of its customers.”

That victimization is actually quite a lucrative industry. According to the legislation, which was obtained by The San Francisco Examiner, mobile communications security experts estimated that replacing lost and stolen mobile devices was a $30 billion business in 2012. In addition, insurance for products covering loss and theft created a $7.8 billion industry in 2013.

For its part, advocacy organization CTIA-The Wireless Association said it has been working with the FCC, law enforcement and legislators nationwide to “remove the aftermarket for stolen phones” via a database where a victim can enter information after a device is lost or stolen.

“These 3G and 4G/LTE databases, which blacklist stolen phones and prevent them from being reactivated, are part of the solution,” said Michael Altschul, senior vice president and general counsel for CTIA. “Yet we need more international carriers and countries to participate to help remove the aftermarket abroad for these trafficked devices.”

Apple, the maker of the iPhone and iPad, is so far the only manufacturer that has voluntarily created an anti-theft solution. Devices running iOS7 software can be secured with Activation Lock, which requires a user’s Apple ID and password before a phone can be used or reactivated. However, the program must be enabled after purchase of the device.

SB 962 would require mobile devices sold in California starting Jan. 1, 2015, to come enabled with a “technological solution” to render them inoperable after loss or theft.

“A technological solution may consist of software, hardware, or a combination of both … but shall be able to withstand a hard reset,” according to the legislation. It defines a “hard reset” as a means to restore the device to its factory settings.

Another component of the legislation targets activating and deactivating of the technology, along with contract language specifically addressing it. Only the owner or someone selected by the owner would be authorized to deactivate the device, and not the retailer. And no contract could require or encourage a consumer to disable the technology.

Both infractions would carry penalties of $500 to $2,500.

Assemblywoman Nancy Skinner, D-Berkeley, co-authored the bill. It has the support of victim and consumer advocates, elected officials and law enforcement from Los Angeles, Oakland and San Francisco.

One of those victim advocates expected to be at Friday’s legislation unveiling in San Francisco is Paul Boken, whose daughter Megan was killed in 2012 in Missouri when two people attempted to steal her iPhone.

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Max DeNike

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