Berkeley officials push for legislation deterring cell phone theft

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At an Oakland press conference on June 19, Berkeley city council members and other East Bay officials voiced their support for a bill requiring the installation of a phone-disabling application aimed at preventing smartphone theft.

Senate Bill 962 would require an anti-theft or “kill switch” program to be pre-installed on all smartphones in California. The app, when activated, would “brick” the phone, preventing it from performing what the bill refers to as “essential functions” like placing calls and accessing the internet. Sen. Mark Leno authored the bill, which, after being struck down in April, has passed the state Senate and has moved on to the Assembly.

The idea of a kill switch mandate isn’t new to Berkeley, according to Councilmember Kriss Worthington, who, along with Councilmember Jesse Arreguin, attended the meeting at Oakland City Hall.

Worthington said residents have been complaining about high rates of cell phone theft for a long time, and that if the kill switch bill doesn’t pass at the state level, it’s likely that a local or regional version will be drafted.

“We’d rather not do that – it’s much better do it at the state level, and have it standard throughout the whole state,” he said. “Right now, my focus is on trying to get people to make phone calls to the senators so we get enough votes … to move it to the floor of the assembly.”

Critics, such as the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a civil liberties group based in San Francisco, have stated that the bill is too ambiguous about who can activate the kill switch.

“What we’re concerned about is the fact that the bill doesn’t explicitly say who can use this kill switch feature – who can turn off the phone for you,” said Adi Kamdar, an activist with the organization. “It just says that the owner or authorized user can restore the (phone). And we think this leaves the ability to use this feature open to law enforcement or to other parties without the owner’s consent.”

Apple has already implemented the feature in the newest iPhone, as an opt-in program for its users. If an iPhone is stolen and its owner triggers the kill switch, it can only be restored by the person who entered the necessary information to trigger it.

Preliminary studies released by the New York State Attorney General, in conjunction with the San Francisco District Attorney, show the kill switch’s effectiveness as a theft deterrent: Apple iPhone thefts decreased by 38 percent in San Francisco during the six months following the release of kill switch-equipped iPhone models.

Both Microsoft and Google have indicated that they plan to add a kill switch function to the next version of their respective phone operating systems. If the proposed statewide bill becomes law, smartphone owners would still be able to opt-out of the kill switch feature, but it would be on by default.

Worthington and other local officials are planning to lobby for the bill in-person in Sacramento. The bill will undergo a vote in the Utilities and Commerce Committee of the Assembly on June 23.

Contact G. Haley Massara at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter @BylineGraph.