California looks to implement 'kill switch' as smartphone theft deterrent

Filed Under: Apple, Featured, Law & order, Mobile

Image of phone courtesy of ShutterstockA California senator plans to introduce new legislation in order to combat the rise in smartphone thefts across cities within the state.

Senator Mark Leno and San Francisco District Attorney George Gascón hope to make California the first US state to require smartphone manufacturers to incorporate a 'kill switch', a remote-controlled security feature, which would make lost or stolen devices inoperable.

Senator Leno announced the proposed new bill on Thursday, saying that:

One of the top catalysts for street crime in many California cities is smartphone theft, and these crimes are becoming increasingly violent. We cannot continue to ignore our ability to utilize existing technology to stop cell phone thieves in their tracks. It is time to act on this serious public safety threat to our communities.

The Federal Communications Commission reports that mobile phone theft constitutes 30-40% of all robberies across the United States, a crime that cost US citizens $30 billion in 2012.

In the Senator's own state of California such thefts are even more prevalent, accounting for over 50% of street robberies, Los Angeles alone has seen a 12% increase in smartphone thefts over the last year.

If the kill switch legislation is passed, carriers will be able to remotely send a message to any device that has been reported as either lost or stolen. That message would trigger the device to 'brick' itself, effectively making it useless, and a far less appealing option for would-be thieves.

With a few exceptions, most phones do not offer any form of remote deactivation at this time which makes them especially appealing to thieves who can snatch and sell them on in a very short period of time.

One manufacturer that does offer deactivation is Apple, though Gascón would like to see such a feature become the default rather than an option:

Apple should be commended for leading the way and making efforts to safeguard their customers, but it is still too early to tell how effective their solution will be. Until Activation Lock is fully opt-out, it appears many iPhone owners will not have the solution enabled. This leaves iPhone users at risk as thieves cannot distinguish between those devices that have the feature enabled and those that do not.

Gascón, along with New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, have asked mobile phone manufacturers to propose methods of curtailing the theft of smartphones. Having presented the tech companies with a June 2014 deadline, Gascón said:

I appreciate the efforts that many of the manufacturers are making, but the deadline we agreed upon is rapidly approaching and most do not have a technological solution in place. Californians continue to be victimized at an alarming rate, and this legislation will compel the industry to make the safety of their customers a priority.

The bill will be formally introduced in January 2014.

Naked Security readers who wish to protect their Android devices in case of loss or theft can install Sophos's free Antivirus and Security app which includes the following features:

  • Supports remote commands for Wipe, Lock, Alarm, Locate, Reset passcode and Message to finder
  • Reporting of the device location before the battery runs out
  • Notification if the SIM card is replaced

Image of block of wood phone courtesy of Shutterstock.

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9 Responses to California looks to implement 'kill switch' as smartphone theft deterrent

  1. NoSpin1600 · 653 days ago

    I would like to see all carriers share an IMEI database. If this is done you can report your phone stolen and should it appear on another carriers network it could be blocked or location services enabled to trace the phone.

  2. Tidsoptimist · 653 days ago

    Or just use Android device manager?

  3. Jamie A · 653 days ago

    My only nagging concern is this: With the internet and cybercrime becoming more and more apparent, imagine being able to access anyone's kill switch for their phone. I know this is taking it to the massive extremes, and I hope for it to never occur, but if someone flicked all the phone kill switches prior to a massive attack (electronic or physical). The sheer confusion and panic from loss of mobile use would be fairly catastrophic, especially in my generation (20 years old) or slightly older or younger. Sadly, most of my generation rely on mobiles on a day-to-day basis. Take that away and well, issues will occur very rapidly.

    As said, a bit on the extreme side. In all honesty, I think a kill switch would be a good thing anyway as it would hopefully reduce the appeal of a phone to a thief.

  4. Tom Legrady · 652 days ago

    Manufacturers will love the idea of destroying a product someone has paid for, forcing them to purchase another. If they were to simply set a unique code to each phone, that's part of the device, rather than part of a removable interface, such as the sim card, phone companies could identify phones being registered that have been reported as stolen, and send out the police. The customer gets his phone back, no additional purchase required. The end of all motivation to steal, since the theif doesn't get a phone and doesn't even force the victim to purchase anew.

  5. Blake · 650 days ago

    This is long overdue.

  6. "This leaves iPhone users at risk as thieves cannot distinguish between those devices that have the feature enabled and those that do not."

    Not true. When protection is enabled on an iPhone the thief will be queried for an "Apple ID" and the associated password. Without those there can be no phone activation for someone other than its rightful owner. As well, a phone number can be displayed so that an unauthorized user can call it. This is the only number the locked phone can call.

    The author feels that many iPhone owners may not use the Apple protection. I disagree.

    When my iPhone was stolen I activated "Find My iPhone" at my computer and GPS tracked it. A friend was directed to its location from where it was retrieved.

    Thank you, Apple.

  7. roy jones jr · 643 days ago

    I think 2 steps have to be in place:

    -Once realization the phone is stolen, the phone can be locked. Now since thieves will find ways to perform factory resets, I think the "bricking" of the phone should be only as a last resort.

    -If the window of time is still open to retrieve the phone, all carriers should be able to do like Apple and turn on GPS to find the phone.

    Also there should be no need to buy secondary software/service separately for this either. Doing so would defeat the purpose of trying to prevent the thefts in the first place.

  8. Robert VDW · 633 days ago

    In Canada they now have something they call the negative list for IMEI numbers. Once you report your phone stolen it's unique IMEI number is added to the list and the phone can not be activated on any providers network.

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About the author

Lee Munson is the founder of Security FAQs, a social media manager with BH Consulting and a blogger with a huge passion for information security.