California proposes kill switch for mobile phones in bid to cut robberies
Move is aimed at bringing down the high rate of mobile device thefts, estimated to account for 60pc of all robberies in the San Francisco area
Legislation unveiled in the US state of California would require smartphones and other mobile devices to have a "kill switch" to render them inoperable if lost or stolen - a move that could be the first of its kind in the country.
State Senator Mark Leno, San Francisco District Attorney George Gascon and other elected and law-enforcement officials said the bill, if passed, would require mobile devices sold in or shipped to California to have the anti-theft devices starting next year.
Leno and Assemblywoman Nancy Skinner, both Democrats, co-authored the bill to be introduced this spring. They joined Gascon, New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman and other authorities who have been demanding that manufacturers create kill switches to combat surging smartphone theft across the country.
Leno called on the wireless industry to step up as smartphone robberies have surged to an all-time high in California.
"They have a choice. They can either be a part of the problem or part of the solution, especially when there is one readily available," Leno said.
Leno and Gascon said they believe the bill would be the first of its kind in the US. Gascon and Schneiderman have given manufacturers a June deadline to come up with solutions to curb the theft of smartphones.
The CTIA-The Wireless Association, a trade group for wireless providers, says a permanent kill switch has serious risks, including potential vulnerability to hackers who could disable mobile devices and lock out not only individuals' phones but also phones used by entities such as the Department of Defence, Homeland Security and lawenforcement agencies.
The association has been working on a national stolen phone database that launched in November to remove any market for stolen smartphones.
"These 3G and 4G/LTE databases, which blacklist stolen phones and prevent them from being reactivated, are part of the solution," Michael Altschul, CTIA's senior vice president and general counsel, said in a statement. "Yet we need more international carriers and countries to participate to help remove the aftermarket abroad for these trafficked devices."
Almost one in three US robberies involves phone theft, according to the Federal Communications Commission. Lost and stolen mobile devices - mostly smartphones - cost consumers more than US$30 billion in 2012, the agency said in a study.
In San Francisco alone, about 60 per cent of all robberies involve the theft of a mobile device, Police Chief Greg Suhr said. In nearby Oakland, such thefts amount to about 75 per cent of robberies, Mayor Jean Quan added.
"We're in California, the technological hub of the world," Suhr said. "I can't imagine someone would vote against" the proposed kill switch law.
Gascon said the industry made an estimated US$7.8 billion on theft and loss insurance on mobile devices but must take action to end the victimisation of its customers.
Last year Samsung Electronics, the world's largest mobile phone manufacturer, proposed installing a kill switch in its devices. But the company told Gascon's office the biggest US carriers rejected the idea.
A Samsung statement issued on Friday said the company did not think legislation was necessary and it would keep working with Gascon, other officials and its wireless carrier partners to stop smartphone theft.
Apple, the maker of the popular iPhone, said its "activation lock", as part of its iOS7 software, was designed to prevent thieves from turning off the "Find My iPhone" application, which allowed owners to track their phone on a map, remotely lock the device and delete its data.