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Calif., carriers headed for battle over 'kill switch' bill

State regulators unveiled the proposed piece of legislation, hoping to suppress theft of mobile devices. But will resistance from the wireless industry halt the effort?

State Sen. Mark Leno (D-San Francisco) and San Francisco District Attorney George Gascon introduced the bill.
Richard Nieva/CNET
SAN FRANCISCO -- California on Friday took another step in its efforts to curb smartphone theft, but the real test will come from a likely battle with the wireless industry.

At City Hall here, State Sen. Mark Leno (D-San Francisco) and San Francisco District Attorney George Gascon introduced a bill that would mandate the inclusion of a "kill switch" in phones sold in the state. The security feature would render a phone inoperable if stolen. If passed, any phone sold after January 1, 2015 would require the feature. The bill will be heard in Senate policy committees later this spring.

Also in attendance to support the bill, formally Senate Bill 962, were Oakland Mayor Jean Quan, Oakland Police Chief Sean Whent, San Francisco Police Chief Greg Suhr, other officials and police officers from around the Bay Area, and consumer advocates.

In San Francisco, cell phone thefts make up 66 percent of all robberies, Leno said. Across the bay in Oakland, it climbs up even higher to over 75 percent. Recovering those phones cost consumers in the US more than $30 billion in 2012, according to a statement previously put out by Leno and Gascon.

But the issue is not just one for California. According to the Federal Communications Commission, cell phone thefts make up 30 to 40 percent of all robberies across the country. And Consumer Reports has said that about 1.6 million Americans were the victims of smartphone theft in 2012. If the bill is passed, Leno said he hoped the rest of the states would "fall like dominoes."

The real problem, the officials emphasized, is that often the robberies are violent. The group on Friday was joined by advocate Paul Boken, who has been traveling the country lobbying for reform, after his 23-year-old daughter was killed in St. Louis during a smartphone robbery.

With a kill switch, the phone's owner would be free to disable the feature. But the point of the bill is to make sure the feature is preloaded and that the system is an opt-out one. That way, the thinking goes, thieves would be deterred from nabbing the device in the first place, knowing a safeguard is in place. Leno stressed that the bill doesn't dictate how the antitheft technology would be implemented, just that it's there.

"I's a crime of convenience," he said. "We end the convenience, we end the crime. It's that simple."

Resistance from carriers?

Now, the big challenge likely comes from push back from the phone carriers. In December, New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, who worked on a similar initiative with Gascon called "Secure Our Smartphones," said he wrote letters to several US carriers asking for their rationale in pushing back against the security feature. He questioned whether business relationships -- like with insurance firms -- had played a role in the carriers' thinking. Gascon on Friday echoed that sentiment. "I'm not implying that the industry is solely motivated by profit, but one certainly has to ask why" there is resistance, he said.

The argument from the industry has generally been one of concern over security and potential hacking if the antitheft technology is required. The officials on Friday leaned heavily on research from Australia, which implemented a similar law in 2003. "If your phone could be hacked with this type of device, why doesn't everyone in Australia have their phone hacked?" asked Quan.

Suhr, San Francisco's police chief, said that Australia has 10 million more phones since that law was implemented, but robbery is down 25 percent. And regarding questions of potential hacking, he said the issue should be taken one step at a time. "Could we just start with this?" he asked. "And if we have a hacking problem afterward, we can deal with it then?"

Quan told CNET that there was a tipping point when the officials decided they needed a bill. It was after Samsung had worked with a third party to develop an antitheft feature, and a group of carriers apparently blocked the feature from being implemented. "That's when we realized we couldn't do this without legislation," she said.

When asked for comment, Samsung didn't directly address the instance Quan mentioned. Instead, the company said it is cooperating, though fell short of actively supporting the bill. "While we don't think legislation is necessary, Samsung supports the San Francisco District Attorney and the Secure our Smartphone (S.O.S.) Initiative," a spokesperson told CNET. "We have been, and will continue working with them and our carrier partners towards our common goal of stopping smartphone theft."

Apple, when reached for contact, touted its Find My iPhone feature, which was updated with an "Activation Lock" with iOS 7; that prevents someone from reactivating an iPhone or iPad after it has been wiped remotely. The California officials on Friday gave Apple credit for the feature, but stressed that it should be an opt-in system, to serve as a deterrent.

In a statement, Sprint showed concern over "unintended consequences":

Sprint shares the view that more needs to be done to help protect consumers from smartphone related crime and continues to work with handset vendors on additional features to protect our customers. While open to a kill switch option, Sprint remains concerned that "permanent" kill switches could lead to unintended consequences for customers, reputable recycling programs, and legitimate used or trade-in devices given that many devices reported lost or stolen are subsequently found by their owners.
AT&T had no comment. Verizon and T-Mobile did not immediately respond to requests for comment. We'll update this post when we hear back.