Why California's kill-switch mandate might save your phone

If you’re reading this story on a smartphone in Bangor, Maine; Key West, Florida; Spokane, Washington; or really any point in between, you wouldn’t think that a bill making its way through the California state legislature would have much of an impact on your mobile device. But a new proposal for a mandatory kill-switch on mobile devices in California figures to have ramifications felt far beyond the borders of the Golden State should it come to pass.

The bill, introduced Friday by State Sen. Mark Leno (D-San Francisco), would require any mobile device sold in the state to come with a digital kill-switch that would render the device useless if it’s ever nabbed by a thief. The idea behind the proposed law is to put a dent in smartphone theft, which has spiked upward in recent years.

Well, good for California, then. But what’s it matter to you, if you happen to live in one of the 49 other states in this country?

Consider it an offshoot of The Golden Rule—as in Them That’s Got the Gold Makes the Rules. By virtue of its size—and the hefty fine for phone makers that’s included in Leno’s proposed law—California has enough pull to make kill switches a standard feature on mobile devices.

The bill introduced by Leno proposes fines ranging from $500 to $2500 per device for retailers who sell a device without kill-switch technology. (Sales of second-hand phones are excluded, so don’t worry about state troopers busting into your home should you ever try to unload that aging iPhone on eBay.) By not complying with such a law, device makers and retailers would either have to pay a fine for each phone and tablet they sold or decide that they no longer care to do business with the 38 million people who live in California. Neither option seems like it would be particularly palatable to a business interested in turning a profit.

Equally unpalatable would be producing a separate product available just for California consumers. So if California moves forward with a smartphone kill-switch mandate, devices complying with that requirement would likely be sold in the other 49 states, whether they pass similar laws or no.

So the big question: How likely is it that California’s legislature moves ahead with this bill? The kill-switch proposal comes with formidable political backing. San Francisco District Attorney George Gascón, who’s been applying pressure on tech companies to adopt technology that reduces the risk of phone thefts, is joining Leno to introduce the bill. Mayors and police chiefs of San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Oakland have also pledged their support.

Partisan gridlock is unlikely to derail the bill. Leno’s fellow Democrats hold substantial majorities in both the State Senate and Assembly. California’s governor is a Democrat as well.

Apple’s Activation Lock feature in iOS 7 is an example of the kind of kill-switch feature California could mandate.

The biggest opposition is likely to come from the wireless industry. The CTIA, a trade group for the phone industry, has been cool to mandate kill switches, instead promoting a nationwide database of stolen phones as a way to combat theft. (Law enforcement officials think the effectiveness of that database has its limits.) TechNet, a high-tech industry trade group, told the Los Angeles Times that it’s guarded about a government-mandated solution.

Some smartphone makers have already taken matters into their own hands: iOS 7 introduced an Activation Lock feature to Apple’s mobile devices and Samsung installed a Lojack feature on some of its phones, though you need to pay an annual fee to take advantage of that capability. Should it pass, California’s proposed law figures to be a game-changer for smartphone and tablet owners—even those in other states.

This story, "Why California's kill-switch mandate might save your phone" was originally published by TechHive.

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