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Will California’s New Kill Switch Policy Reduce Phone Theft?

September 5, 2014
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Will California’s New Kill Switch Policy Reduce Phone Theft?
A kill switch could make stealing cell phones less lucrative. Getty Images
In an effort to reduce crime, the state mandates all smartphones sold statewide be equipped with this technology.

From family photos, banking information and all our correspondence (both text and email), we keep just about everything stored on our smartphones these days. So if yours is stolen, it can be very traumatic knowing that all your information is in the hands of a criminal. (Not to mention the amount money it’ll cost you to replace your phone.)

In an effort to prevent phone theft, Calif. Gov. Jerry Brown signed a bill into law that requires smartphone manufacturers to include a default kill switch on all phones sold across the state (after July 1, 2015), which allows individuals to remotely disable a phone after it’s been reported stolen. Only an owner can reactivate the phone with a password or personal identification number — meaning a phone becomes useless after it’s taken.

Introduced by state senator Mark Leno and sponsored by San Francisco district attorney George Gascón, the bill is the first of its kind. Though Minnesota became the first state to require the anti-theft technology on phones in May, California’s new policy requires manufacturers to turn on the switch by default.

“California has just put smartphone thieves on notice,” Leno says in a statement. “Starting next year, all smartphones sold in California, and most likely every other state in the union, will come equipped with theft deterrent technology when they purchase new phones. Our efforts will effectively wipe out the incentive to steal smartphones and curb this crime of convenience, which is fueling street crime and violence within our communities.”

Indeed, 2,400 cellphones were taken last year in San Francisco, the New York Times reports. More than 65 percent of all robberies in the City by the Bay involved stolen phones, while in Oakland, cell phone theft accounted for 75 percent of crimes, according to Time. In total, an estimated 3.1 million devices in the U.S. were taken in 2013, nearly double the number in 2012, Consumer Reports finds.

“Soon, stealing a smartphone won’t be worth the trouble, and these violent street crimes will be a thing of the past,” Gascón says in a statement. “The devices we use every day will no longer make us targets for violent criminals.”

But does the new law have the potential to prevent phone theft nationwide? California lawmakers are hoping that by requiring the feature in one of the nation’s biggest states, companies like Apple, Samsung or Google will begin adding the default feature to all phones ahead of potential legislation in other states.

While the default feature is a new development, earlier this year big brands like Nokia, Motorola and Samsung agreed to voluntarily include a kill-switch for users to opt-in after July 2015.

Apple has included a similar feature since September. In fact, recent reports from police in major urban areas like San Francisco and London reveal that theft of Apple devices has dropped in the wake of the company’s introduction of its anti-theft feature.

But not all are in favor of the new ruling. CTIA, the wireless industry’s trade organization, has railed against the proposal as detrimental to technology innovation.

The “action was unnecessary given the breadth of action the industry has taken,” says CTIA vice president Jamie Hastings. “Uniformity in the wireless industry created tremendous benefits for wireless consumers, including lower costs and phenomenal innovation. State-by-state technology mandates, such as this one, stifle those benefits and are detrimental to wireless consumers.”

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