California SmartPhone Kill Switch Close to Reality

The next time you lose your smartphone, you may be able to exhale a little knowing whatever sensitive data on it is secured. Because instead of your phone winding up on the black market, you’ll be able to turn your phone into a useless brick, worthless to anyone but yourself.

Last week a bill requiring that all smartphones sold in California come with a kill switch installed passed a final California Senate vote. The bill was spearheaded by state Sen. Mark Leno and San Francisco District Attorney George Gascon. The next step is for Governor Jerry Brown to sign it.

There is definitely a need for such a security feature on smartphones. Consumer Reports estimated that about 3.1 million American consumers were victims of smartphone theft in 2013, nearly double the number of estimated thefts in 2012.

A report done by Lookout on phone theft in America found that 1 in 10 U.S. smartphone owners are victims of phone theft and 68 percent of victims were unable to recover their device after the theft occurred.

What’s in The Bill

This bill (SB-962) requires that any smartphone, made on or after July 1, 2015, and sold in California after that date, include a kill switch. It can be software, hardware, or a combination of both. When activated by the owner, it must render the phone inoperable to any unauthorized user.

When enabled, the kill switch must be able to withstand a hard reset, and prevent reactivation of the smartphone on a wireless network by anyone but the owner. Smartphones released prior to January 1, 2015, that can’t be re-engineered to support the tech used by the kill switch are exempt from this bill.

You’ll have the option to disable or opt-out of using the kill switch. Tablets aren’t covered by this bill.

A Real Deterrent

A kill switch has proven to be an effective deterrent to smartphone theft. With the release of iOS 7, Apple added a new feature to its Find My iPhone app called Activation Lock. It’s designed to prevent anyone else from using your iPhone, iPad, or iPod touch if you lose it. With Activation Lock, your Apple ID and password is required before anyone can: turn off Find My iPhone on your device, erase your device, or reactivate and use it.

A report by the Secure Out Smartphone Initiative shows a significant drop in thefts with the release of this feature.

Samsung has recently implemented two of its own anti-theft features, “Find My Mobile” and “Reactivation Lock,” with its Galaxy S5 smartphone.

Wireless Companies Resistant

Wireless companies were Initially resistant to this bill stating the kill switch would make the phones vulnerable to hacking. Some speculate the real reason had to due with the money they make off of insurance programs covering customers for lost or stolen phones. This might be the reason tablets aren’t covered by the bill, the wireless companies didn’t want to completely give up this insurance cash cow.

Possible Civil Liberty Issues

It’s a good time for smartphone users. With this bill and Obama recently signing into law the Unlocking Consumer Choice and Wireless Competition Act. That said, the bill may need some fine tuning to make sure law enforcement can’t take advantage of the kill switch to disable your phone when they think a situation requires it.

The bill currently addresses this issue by stating, “Any request by a government agency to interrupt communications service utilizing a technological solution required by this section is subject to Section 7908 of the Public Utilities Code”

Some think this wording may not be good enough. With good reason.

On July 3, 2011, the operators of the Bay Area Rapid Transit subway system temporarily shut down cell service in four downtown San Francisco stations to interfere with a protest over the fatal shooting of Charles Blair Hill by a BART police officer. One of the reasons given by a BART spokesperson was that it was, “to ensure the safety of everyone on the platform.”

With Police Departments becoming more militarized and heavy handed to maintain the peace, many wouldn’t think twice about using a kill switch to prevent protesters from communicating and organizing when they think the safety of others is at risks.

If this tech was available now, odds are the residents of Ferguson, MO currently protesting the shooting of Michael Brown would have found themselves disconnected from each other by mobile. Additionally, they would have a difficult time communicating to the rest of the world what’s happening there via social media and videos. Because if the Ferguson Police had access to this kill switch, they would have used it.

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