Everything I Know About California’s Smartphone Kill Switch Law

Smartphone Pickpocket

I’ve been getting up to speed on California’s new smartphone kill switch legislation, and thought I’d share some of what I’ve read here. It’s a pretty big deal in that it has ramifications for carriers, manufacturers and users alike, both in the sunny state of California and beyond.

The bill signed this week is actually not the first such law in the USA—Minnesota passed something similar back in June. The main difference with the California law is that the kill switch must be enabled by default, rather than simply being available on the user’s device to turn on and/or off as they see fit.

These new laws, geographically limited though they may be, amount to a tacit admission by government and the CTIA that previous efforts to deter theft—namely a national database of stolen devices—have failed.

Carriers in the United States have been reluctant to support mandated kill switches, for largely economic reasons. Implementing such technology involves added expense and effort. And the ugly truth is that a stolen smartphone is still a potential source of income—so long as it stays in the country someone somewhere is going to use it. The industry may have come around thanks to a class-action suit filed against AT&T in 2012.

Every major player in the industry has now put their support on record via a voluntary agreement with the CTIA, including Apple, Google, HTC, Huawei, Motorola, Microsoft and Nokia, along with Sprint, T-Mobile, U.S. Cellular, and Verizon.

Kill switch legislation does have its critics, though. A thoughtful piece on Tom’s Guide questions the research behind it:

113 smartphones every minute amounts to nearly 60 million lost or stolen smartphones in the U.S. every year. Based on numbers from the U.S. Census Bureau and the Pew Research Center, approximately 137 million Americans own smartphones. Do a full 44 percent of American smartphone owners really lose their smartphones, or have them forcibly taken, in the course of any given year?

There is also a Big Brother aspect to consider; a government-mandated kill switch might present an irresistible opportunity for law enforcement to seize control of your device, shutting it down, say, in the event of a protest—not unlike the BART system suspending cellular service in the aftermath of the Charles Hill killing in 2011.

So that’s everything I know about  the new kill switch law. Some links I used to compile this unofficial primer are listed below for your reading pleasure.

Further Reading: