Smartphone 'kill switch' bill clears California Assembly

'Kill switch' feature would allow smartphone owners to disable lost or stolen phones remotely

Lawmakers in the Assembly approved a measure Thursday to require smartphones sold in the state to have a "kill switch" function that would allow owners to remotely deactivate them.

The bill, by Sen. Mark Leno (D-San Francisco), would require all mobile phones manufactured after July 1, 2015 and sold in California to be equipped with a feature that would render it inoperable if the phone is lost or stolen.

The measure was sponsored by San Francisco Dist. Atty. George Gason and backed by law enforcement groups, who said the feature would stem the growing rate of smartphone thefts.

"None of us should have our lives at risk as we walk down the street because of a device that each and every one of us use all day long," said Assemblywoman Nancy Skinner (D-Berkeley), speaking in support of the bill Thursday.

Cellphone manufacturers initially had concerns with the measure, but many dropped their opposition after a series of changes to the bill, including pushing back the start date and exempting tablet computers.

Leno said the changes did not affect the central goal of the bill: to make the kill switch option the default position on all phones, meaning users would have to actively disable the function if they did not want it.

"This is a deterrent. We want to get in the head of the criminal that this is in all phones," Leno said in an interview after Thursday's vote. "It’s not worth their time or risk, because if someone robs your phone, it’s going to be worthless."

The bill still faces some opposition from industry groups, such as the CTIA, an industry trade group. Critics oppose a state-specific requirement for products sold nationally.

"I think California should be a bit embarrassed that it is considering mandating a state-only technology on the very companies that virtually invented the wireless industry and the kill switches and the anti-theft devices we're discussing right now," said Assemblyman Jim Patterson (R-Fresno).

The bill passed the Assembly on a 53-20 vote; it now heads to the Senate for final legislative approval.

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