New CA kill switch law stirs free speech debate 

Researchers are concerned that California's new kill switch bill may enable rogue cellphone shutdowns. BART fanned controversy in 2011 when it shut down mobile service in its San Francisco stations in hopes of preventing a protest. - MIKE KOOZMIN/2011 S.F. EXAMINER FILE PHOTO
  • Mike Koozmin/2011 S.F. Examiner file photo
  • Researchers are concerned that California's new kill switch bill may enable rogue cellphone shutdowns. BART fanned controversy in 2011 when it shut down mobile service in its San Francisco stations in hopes of preventing a protest.
State Sen. Mark Leno, D-San Francisco, Monday celebrated the potential for wide-reaching impacts of his kill switch bill for mobile devices, signed into law by Gov. Jerry Brown.

In a statement, Leno said the law, which requires any smartphone sold in California after July 1, 2015, to include kill switch technology that could render the device unusable in the event of a theft, will affect “most likely every other state in the union.” But the wide-reaching implications of the new law have some digital security researchers and advocates nervous.

The law, Senate Bill 962, was authored by Leno and sponsored by San Francisco District Attorney George Gascón in an effort to combat smartphone theft. In the first quarter of 2014, Gascón's office reported that as many as two-thirds of robberies in The City involved mobile devices.

By mandating kill switch technology that requires consumers to opt out rather than opt in, Leno hopes to disincentivize thieves from targeting smartphone owners. "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," he said Monday in a statement.

But Adi Kamdar, an activist at the Electronic Frontier Foundation in San Francisco, sees the issue differently. EFF opposed the kill switch bill because the legislation does not make clear exactly who can trigger a smartphone's kill switch. EFF lobbied for the law to explicitly state that the technology could only be used by the phone's rightful owner, not law enforcement officials or service providers. Kill switches, Kamdar said, “might be abused in other countries during times of protest or gatherings. That presents a very real issue.”

Although the law is only applicable in California, Kamdar suggested it would have global impact: “I don't think phone manufacturers are going to sell a separate California phone. They are going to sell it throughout the world,” he said.

Max Szabo, policy manager for the District Attorney's Office, noted that only 58 percent of Californians own smartphones. "So what's the utility for a government to quell speech for only a fraction of cellular device users?" he asked. "A government could just turn off all wireless communications service instead. I don't see the kill switch being used to quell speech."

Sean Sullivan, a security researcher for F-Secure, noted that software already exists for consumers who want to remotely shut down their phones if they are stolen, and argued that mandating such technology could lead to its exploitation. “I'm really stunned that a representative from San Francisco can push this, especially after the BART admin shut down cellphone coverage during the protests of the recent past,” he said. “Once we have something that's mandated in the phone, there's an opportunity for oppression.”

Szabo responded, "We specifically reference the legislation that resulted from the BART protest in the bill." SB 962 does refer to another state law that limits the circumstances under which the government may interrupt wireless service.

Gascón predicted that the new law would eliminate smartphone robberies in The City. “Soon, stealing a smartphone won't be worth the trouble, and these violent street crimes will be a thing of the past,” he said.

Since Apple debuted an opt-in kill switch, Activation Lock, in its iOS7 update, Szabo said iPhone theft had dropped and robberies involving Samsung devices had risen, although iPhones were still the most frequently-targeted device.

SB 962 was supported by Apple, AT&T, Blackberry, Google, Microsoft, Samsung and Verizon, but opposed by CTIA, a mobile industry group.

"People are being beaten for their smartphones. If criminals know that smartphones will be useless if they sell them, the number of robberies and physical violence will decrease," said Adam Ely, co-founder and chief operating officer of San Francisco-based mobile security company Bluebox Security. "We know this will increase physical security."

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