Smartphone 'kill-switch' bill headed to California governor

A bill requiring smartphone makers to include antitheft software on devices sold in California is one step away from becoming law.

Richard Nieva Former senior reporter
Richard Nieva was a senior reporter for CNET News, focusing on Google and Yahoo. He previously worked for PandoDaily and Fortune Magazine, and his writing has appeared in The New York Times, on CNNMoney.com and on CJR.org.
Richard Nieva
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State Sen. Mark Leno and San Francisco District Attorney George Gascon introducing the bill during a press conference in February. Richard Nieva/CNET

A bill that mandates antitheft technology to come pre-installed on all smartphones sold in California is headed to the governor after passing a final California Senate vote on Monday.

The bill, introduced by state Sen. Mark Leno and sponsored by San Francisco District Attorney George Gascon, asks that device makers put so-called "kill-switch" technology on every smartphone, though users could choose to opt-out of the security services. The software lets users lock the phone if it is stolen, making it inoperable.

The bill passed with a 27 to 8 vote.

The proposed legislation, formally named SB962, addresses what government officials have called an "epidemic." One in 10 smartphone owners in the US has had a phone stolen, according to the mobile security firm Lookout. In 2013, more than 3 million Americans were the victims of smartphone theft -- nearly twice as many as the year before, according to Consumer Reports. On Gascon's home turf of San Francisco, more than 65 percent of robberies in 2013 involved a mobile device. The rate jumps up to more than 75 percent across the bay in Oakland.

"Our goal is to swiftly take the wind out of the sails of thieves who have made the theft of smartphones one of the most prevalent street crimes in California's biggest cities," said Leno, in a statement.

The kill-switch bill passed the California State Assembly last week. Introduced during a press conference in February by Leno and Gascon, the bill narrowly failed its first vote in the state Senate in April, but passed two weeks later in early May.

Under the California bill, all smartphones sold in the state and manufactured after July 2015 would need the software. Because the bill has been amended since the Senate initially passed the bill, Monday's vote gave the legislators another chance to approve or deny changes to the bill. Those amendments addressed concerns over the implementation date, and whether or not retailers would be liable for selling non-compliant phones. One amendment exempts older devices that cannot "reasonably be reengineered" to support the software.

"The bill has made significant progress since it left this house," said Leno, on the Senate floor.

There has been political groundswell in other parts of the country as well. New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman is spearheading efforts in his state. In May, Minnesota became the first state to pass a kill-switch bill.

There has been some pushback by wireless carriers, though, who say a kill switch could be exploited by hackers. Supporters of the bill have questioned the motives of the industry, pointing to lucrative partnerships with insurance companies.

"I commend the Legislature for standing up to the wireless industry and voting to protect the safety of their constituents," said Gascón, in a statement.

The CTIA, a trade organization that represents the wireless telecom industry, deplored Monday's result.

"We urge the Governor to not sign this bill, since uniformity in the wireless industry created tremendous benefits for wireless consumers, including lower costs and phenomenal innovation," said Jamie Hastings, vice president of external and state affairs for the CTIA, in a statement. "State by state technology mandates, such as this one, stifle those benefits and are detrimental to wireless consumers."

Samsung and Apple, the No. 1 and 2 smartphone makers in the world, already have antitheft software available on their phones. In September, Apple added "activation lock," a feature that makes it harder for someone to use a stolen iPhone. The program requires a user's Apple ID and password before they can turn off the phone's location tracking or reactivate a locked phone. In April, Samsung, maker of the popular Galaxy smartphone line, launched "reactivation lock," which prevents a locked phone from being made operable again, even through a factory reset.

Updated, 3:18 p.m. PT: Adds statements from state Sen. Mark Leno and San Francisco District Attorney George Gascon.