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Mandate for 'kill switches' in smartphones fails in Calif. Senate

SACRAMENTO — Despite support from law enforcement including LAPD Chief Charlie Beck, a measure that would require smartphones to have enabled "kill switches" failed in a close vote Thursday in the California Senate.

With the telecommunications industry, including Microsoft, lobbying hard against the bill, it failed on a 19-17 vote, two votes short of the tally needed for passage. It was granted a chance to come up for another vote in the future.

Beck campaigned for the measure as a way to reduce often violent thefts of the phones that have increased more than 30% since 2011 in his city.

“This is an issue we need to address,” said Sen. Mark Leno (D-San Francisco), who introduced the bill. “By not doing so, the crime is only going to continue to escalate.”

But amid heavy lobbying against the measure, a group of Democrats, including Sens. Ricardo Lara of Bell Gardens, Norma Torres of Pomona and Jim Beall of San Jose, joined most of the Republicans in voting down the bill.

Opponents said the phone industry has pledged to voluntarily provide kill switches that consumers can choose to enable.

“This bill is unnecessary. Its punitive,” said Senate Republican leader Bob Huff of Diamond Bar. He said it would hurt California businesses that make phones for worldwide markets.

Sen. Jean Fuller (R-Bakersfield) also opposed the measure. “The consumer loses their choice,” Fuller said of the bill, predicting it would drive Californians to buy their phones out of state.

Currently, phone buyers can purchase apps that allow them to kill their phone if stolen, but many don’t enable kill switches and criminals know that. Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento) said if kill switches were the default mode for all phones, it would deter crime.

“The criminal will be less likely to steal the phone because he or she knows it will be of no utility to them,” Steinberg said.

The bill currently would also apply to tablets, but Leno said he plans to remove those devices from the proposal. He also is delaying implementation to July 1, 2015 so phone makers could sell the phones in their warehouses that are not equipped with kill switches.

Under the measure, if a phone is stolen, the owner would be able to go online and type in a name and password to render the phone inoperable.

A disappointed Leno noted that smart phone industry makes billions of dollars selling devices to those whose phones were lost or stolen and providing theft insurance. “If we end the robberies there will be an obvious impact to their bottom line,” Leno told his colleagues.

Jamie Hastings, vice president for the trade group CTIA, praised the vote.

"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," Hastings said in a statement.

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patrick.mcgreevy@latimes.com

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