A bill that would mandate a kill-switch on all smartphones sold in California failed a key vote in the state’s senate on Thursday.
Senate Bill 962 fell short of the 21 votes it needed to move on to the state assembly, chalking up an important win for the telecommunications industry. While the law would have been in force only in California, it could have ushered in such technology nationwide because of the cost of making a state-specific handset.
In an attempt to get it through the senate, bill sponsor Senator Mark Leno, a Democrat representing San Francisco, accepted two key changes: a six-month delay in the start of the proposed law to July 1, 2015, and a narrowing to cover just smartphones and not tablets.
But that apparently wasn’t enough. After 40 minutes of debate, the bill gained 19 yes votes and 17 no votes, including several no votes from fellow senate Democrats.
Robberies on the rise
Leno proposed the bill in February, in reaction to a substantial increase in the number of robberies of smartphones on California city streets. The kill-switch would enable consumers to remotely lock and disable a smartphone if stolen. The action would require a password and could only be issued by the subscriber or a person of their choosing. Carriers wouldn’t be able to kill a phone.
The theory behind the bill is that if a phone is rendered useless, its secondhand value would drop and so would the incentive for theft.
“We need to get into the minds of those that have shifted their criminal activities to this new crime, that it’s not worth it,” Leno said of his bill. “That it’s not worth the risk because the benefit will not be there.”
Steve Knight, a Republican from Palmdale, said that even a disabled smartphone is still worth around $200 in parts and that he worried how the law would be enforced.
“I don’t want street robberies to happen, I don’t want cellphones to be stolen, but this bill is not going to address that enforcement issue,” he said before voting against the bill.
Norma Torres, a Democrat from Pomona who also voted against the bill, asked if the spouse of someone involved in divorce or domestic violence could see their phone switched off by a malicious partner—Leno said that would be possible if the password had been shared with them—and Bob Huff, a Republican from Diamond Bar, called it “unnecessary” and “punitive” on the telecom industry.
Can police kill a phone?
Since it was proposed, the bill has been amended to spell out whether law enforcement would be able to activate the kill switch. As it stood before its reading on Thursday, police and other agencies would need to abide by an existing law, section 7908 of the California Public Utilities Code.
That puts restrictions on when it can be done and requires a court-issued warrant except in an emergency that poses “immediate danger of death or great bodily injury.”
The bill was granted reconsideration, so it could be brought back to the state senate floor at a later date.
“I remain hopeful that my colleagues in the Legislature continue to explore and understand the critical need for this bill to become law,” Leno said in a statement.
San Francisco District Attorney George Gascon, one of most prominent law enforcement officials pushing the telecom companies to do more, said the failure of the bill on Thursday was "disheartening."
"This technology already exists, but it needs to be deployed in a way which doesn't rely on consumers to seek out the solutions and turn them on," he said in a statement. "That's all this legislation does, it takes existing technology and makes it a standard feature on all smartphones."
He said the senators that had voted against the bill had chosen "to protect billion dollar industry profits over the safety of the constituents they were elected to serve."
The CTIA, the Washington, D.C.-based lobbying group that represents the telecom industry, said it appreciated the Senate's decision.
"The U.S. wireless industry continues to protect its consumers’ information and help stop the theft of stolen smartphones via the ‘Smartphone Anti-Theft Voluntary Commitment,’ which is free to users, as well as the stolen phone databases and individual company and industry-wide consumer education initiatives," it said in a statement.
Updated at 1:55 PM with additional details. The story has also been updated to note after one senator also changed his vote, altering the final tally.