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August 26, 2014

California 'Kill Switch' Bill Goes Live

The debate, the review, the concerns and conditions around a smartphone “kill switch” requirement being put into place in California have now ended, and a new law is in place requiring smartphones to have security software enabled by default for sale in California. While California isn't the first state to do such a thing, or even consider it, the particularly extensive nature of this kill switch law makes it unique among its contemporaries.

The bill was introduced back in February by state Senator Mark Leno, and got some extra push from a sponsorship by San Francisco District Attorney George Gascon. The law requires the kill switch functions and similar antitheft measures to come enabled by default, which is actually a step up from other such law. Minnesota, meanwhile, passed such a law back in May, but didn't require the features to be active by default. That was a point that Leno called particular attention to, saying that “opt-in does not end the problem. Because it will not be ubiquitous.” Essentially, the California bill seeks to make smartphone protection absolute via the expedient of making it universal; if thieves know that smartphones in California come with this protective measure, thieves should likewise know there's no point in stealing smartphones in California since same can be killed with a quick program application.

With smartphone theft rising—one in 10 smartphone owners has had a smartphone stolen at one point, according to a study from Lookout, and Consumer Reports recently noted that smartphone thefts nearly doubled just between 2012 and 2013—it was clear that something did indeed need to be done, and California looked to definitively shut down even the possibility of smartphone theft by making protection universal. The law applies to every smartphone sold in California after July 1, 2015, and there will be a fine of between $500 and $2,500 for every phone “knowingly” sold without such protection after the date in question. Gascon, for his part, asserts that the job is done, saying “Seldom can a public safety crisis be addressed by a technological solution, but today wireless customers everywhere can breathe a sigh of relief.”

Some, meanwhile, aren't so sure. The wireless industry, or some sectors of it believe that California has traded one crime for another, opening up the floor to unscrupulous hackers who can now exploit a kill switch and essentially hold a phone hostage. The Cellular Telecommunications Industry Association (CTIA) believes that California simply went too far, and that the industry had already done quite a bit in terms of offering the kill switch protection to users. A statement from the CTIA said “Today's action was unnecessary given the breadth of action the industry has taken. State by state technology mandates, such as this one, stifle those benefits and are detrimental to wireless consumers.”

What's worse here, however, is that California seems to have forgotten one of the great maxims of any practical craft: what one can do, another can undo. Whether it's an engineer, programmer, or even hacker, setting up a kill switch system may not be the permanent protection California lawmakers seem to envision. It may ultimately prove to offer a false sense of security as the hackers find a way around the kill switches, and smartphone theft continues unabated.

Only time will tell just what effect this law has on California and its smartphones, but it may not be quite the effect that lawmakers originally had in mind.

Edited by Maurice Nagle

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