Senators propose smartphone antitheft 'kill switch' bill

On the heels of proposed California legislation, federal lawmakers also get on board with a bill requiring security features on all cell phones.

Dara Kerr Former senior reporter
Dara Kerr was a senior reporter for CNET covering the on-demand economy and tech culture. She grew up in Colorado, went to school in New York City and can never remember how to pronounce gif.
Dara Kerr
3 min read
If the proposed bill passes, this Galaxy Note 3 would need to come with a kill switch. Sarah Tew/CNET

Lawmakers' bids to require a smartphone "kill switch" seem to be gaining momentum.

Following the proposal of a California bill, a handful of senators have now proposed federal legislation to require carriers to provide a security feature on all cell phones that would render the devices inoperable if stolen.

The Smartphone Theft Prevention Act is being led by Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), along with three other senators, Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.), Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), and Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii). The idea is for users to be able to de-activate and remotely wipe their personal information from their phones if lost or stolen. This kill switch would be free to users.

"Cell phone theft has become a big business for thieves looking to cash in on these devices and any valuable information they contain, costing consumers more than $30 billion every year and endangering countless theft victims," Klobuchar said in a statement. "This legislation will help eliminate the incentives for criminals to target smartphones by empowering victims to take steps to keep their information private; protect their identity and finances; and render the phone inoperable to the thieves."

Nearly one in three robberies in the US involves cell phone theft, according to the Federal Communications Commission. And major cities have it even worse. In both New York City and San Francisco, more than 50 percent of the robberies involve the theft of a smartphone -- what's referred to as "Apple Picking." In Oakland, an estimated 75 percent of street robberies involve a cell phone.

California's kill switch bill was introduced last week -- the point of this bill is to ensure the security feature is preloaded on all phones. Both the California and federal proposals build on the Secure Our Smartphones initiative founded by New York State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman and San Francisco District Attorney George Gascón.

While lawmakers are working to get kill switches installed on smartphones, they've met resistance from carriers and the cellular industry trade group CTIA. The CTIA says kill switches carry too many risks in regard to hacking and privacy. Instead, the group says, criminalizing smartphone tampering and creating a national database of stolen cell phones should be sufficient in deterring smartphone robberies.

"Rather than impose technology mandates, a better approach would be to enact Senator Schumer's legislation to criminalize tampering with mobile device identifiers," CTIA Vice President of Government Affairs Jot Carpenter said in a statement, according to Re/code. "This would build on the industry's efforts to create the stolen device databases; give law enforcement another tool to combat criminal behavior; and leave carriers, manufacturers, and software developers free to create new, innovative loss and theft prevention tools for consumers who want them."

Despite CTIA's suggestions, lawmakers and other officials still believe the best way to cut down on smartphone theft is the kill switch.

"In major cities across the Nation, cell phone theft has rapidly become the most common robbery and most frequent street crime," Commissioner Chuck Ramsey, president of the Major Cities Chiefs, said. "So long as these devices are still operable, this crime trend will continue to escalate. That's why the proposed kill switch is the only way to get the job done. We look forward to the swift passage of legislation that will ensure stolen devices no longer have any value to criminals on the street."