California May Become the First State to Require Kill Switches in Smartphones



State Senator Mark Leno of San Francisco announced plans this week to introduce a bill next year that would require kill switch technology in all mobile devices sold in California. Kill switches render stolen devices inoperable, and law enforcement officials, including San Francisco District Attorney George Gascón, believe they represent the best way to address the smartphone robbery epidemic that is plaguing the nation.

Mark Leno
  • Mark Leno
In Oakland, 75 percent of all street robberies include a cellphone. And in San Francisco, cellphone thefts now account for 50 percent of all robberies. Lookout, a smartphone securities company, estimates that stolen and lost smartphones cost consumers $30 billion in 2012.

“One of the top catalysts for street crime in many California cities is smartphone theft, and these crimes are becoming increasingly violent,” said Leno. “We cannot continue to ignore our ability to utilize existing technology to stop cellphone thieves in their tracks. It is time to act on this serious public safety threat to our communities.”

Over the last year, Gascón and New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman have publicly pressured cellphone companies to create kill switch technology for their smartphones. At a meeting they dubbed the “Smartphone Summit” this summer, Apple and Samsung agreed to develop kill switches for their products by July 2014.

But it's still unclear if Apple's anti-theft feature, Activation Lock, which the company released with its new operating system this September, will successfully deter theft. And Microsoft and Google have failed to develop kill switch technology for their smartphones.

Cell phone carriers may also be colluding to delay kill switch development for corporate profit. Earlier this month, Schneiderman sent letters to executives at Verizon Wireless, T-Mobil, AT&T, Sprint and US Cellular, demanding reasons why they rejected new kill switch technology in Samsung phones. He accused the carriers of preventing the application of universal anti-theft technology due to billions in profit from insurance plans.

Leno will introduce the kill switch bill in early January 2014 when the legislative session begins.

Gascón hopes that the legislation will be the final push needed to protect Californians from cell phone theft.

"I appreciate the efforts that many of the manufacturers are making, but the deadline we agreed upon is rapidly approaching and most do not have a technological solution in place," said Gascón. "Californians continue to be victimized at an alarming rate, and this legislation will compel the industry to make the safety of their customers a priority."