Lawmakers seek to curb smartphone theft with device ‘kill switch’

Sharon Lui/Senior Staff

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Bay Area lawmakers introduced legislation Thursday that would require new smartphones and tablets sold in California to come equipped with a digital “kill switch” function, allowing owners to disable devices when lost or stolen.

State Sen. Mark Leno, D-San Francisco, and Assemblymember Nancy Skinner, D-Berkeley, co-authored the bill, SB 962, and said they hope to deter the rising number of mobile device thefts by requiring technological antitheft solutions be installed in devices sold after Jan. 1, 2015. Penalties would include fines of up to $2,500 for each mobile device sold or shipped in the state without these proposed security features.

“Smartphone manufacturers have a responsibility to ensure that consumers do not become targets as a result of purchasing their products,” Skinner said in an interview. “Thieves don’t want to steal a cellphone that doesn’t work or something they can’t turn around (on the secondary market).”

Although UCPD doesn’t track crimes by the type of loss, Lt. Marc DeCoulode said smartphones are often taken in the course of a robbery or as the result of a simple opportunity theft. DeCoulode added that the quick aftermarket turnover for smartphones results in a low recovery rate.

“I think (an antitheft) device would help, as it would lessen the desire for people to steal (smartphones),” DeCoulode said. “We just want to remind people, especially in our campus environment, to be aware of their surroundings, walk with somebody or use shuttle services.

At a press conference Friday, Leno dubbed smartphone theft an “epidemic.” For example, the bill cites that roughly 50 percent of property crime in San Francisco involved a smartphone or tablet. Smartphone theft also accounts for 75 percent of property theft in Oakland, authorities said. Nationwide, the Federal Communications Commission reported in 2012 that one in three robberies in the United States involved theft of a mobile device.

The bill also places limits on retailers from tampering with or deterring the use of a kill switch by consumers. Only owners will have the option to disable the security function after purchasing an enabled device. Retailers and mobile providers will also be prohibited from including a term or condition in a contract that removes the feature prior to a sale.

CTIA – The Wireless Association, a trade group for wireless providers, said it has been working with the FCC and lawmakers to disrupt the surging aftermarket for stolen phones, which cost consumers more than $30 billion a year. However, the CTIA cautioned against solutions that might leave users vulnerable to hackers.

“We encourage consumers to use currently available apps and features that remotely wipe, track and lock their devices in case they are lost or stolen,” said Michael Altschul, senior vice president of CTIA, in a statement. “Our members are continuing to explore and offer new technologies to address these crimes while not inadvertently creating a ‘trapdoor’ that hackers and cybercriminals could exploit.”

Jessica Redman, a spokesperson from Samsung Electronics — the world’s largest manufacturer in mobile phones — said in an email statement that the company doesn’t think legislation is necessary but that it supports San Francisco District Attorney George Gascon, a sponsor of the bill, and will continue working to deter smartphone theft.

The bill will be heard in the state Senate this spring.

Jeff Landa covers city news. Contact him at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter @JeffLanda.