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Capitol Journal

Smartphone 'kill switch' bill mugged by telecom industry

In San Francisco, two of three robberies involve smartphones
The most vulnerable spots for smartphone robberies are coffee shops, bars and restaurants
George Skelton: This is another example of legal corruption in Sacramento

In truth, I wouldn't know a smartphone "kill switch" from a typewriter shift key. But I do know strong special interest influence when I smell it.

I'm not saying that every state senator who voted against a bill to require kill switches as theft deterrents on new smartphones got bought off by the telecommunications industry. But surely some did. And they know who they are.

Well, maybe they don't. Denial is a common human characteristic, especially in legislative halls packed by lobbyists with access to campaign money. Of course, it's never the money that influences. It's the merits of the argument. Right!

The telecom industry, during the previous two election cycles, contributed nearly $1.4 million to California state senators, according to Maplight, a nonpartisan organization that tracks political money. Of that, $700,000 came from AT&T, Verizon, Sprint and T-Mobile.

Legislators in both houses — Assembly as well as Senate — received nearly $2 million from the telecom lobby during the 2012 election cycle alone.

Last week, embarrassed by Senate corruption scandals, the so-called upper house dedicated a full day to ethics training — a refresher course on avoiding the illegalities of money and politics.

Then the next day, 11 Republicans and seven Democrats blocked passage of the kill-switch bill, which was strongly backed by law enforcement but aggressively opposed by the telecom industry. Needing a simple majority for passage, the measure fell two votes short, 19-17.

All the "yes" votes were cast by Democrats, except for one Republican: Sen. Ted Gaines of Rocklin. But six Democrats voted "no" and one abstained. They were Sens. James Beall Jr. of San Jose, Lou Correa of Santa Ana, Cathleen Galgiani of Stockton, Ed Hernandez of West Covina, Ricardo Lara of Bell Gardens, Norma Torres of Pomona and Ben Hueso of San Diego (the abstention).

The bill, SB 962, wasn't exactly buried. The author, Sen. Mark Leno (D-San Francisco), hopes to revive it. But the measure is breathing only on life support and elections are approaching. So the allure of campaign money will only increase.

"Time is not our friend," Leno says. "An army of lobbyists continue to swoop in, trying to pick off our votes. During the vote, there were 20 lobbyists outside, all working it."

The bill — spawned by the fast-rising crime of smartphone robbery — would require that every device sold in California starting next year come equipped with a fully operational kill switch.

A kill switch — little did I know — is not a switch. It's installed technology that enables the owner to remotely lock the phone if it has been stolen or lost. That can be accomplished from another smartphone or desktop computer by entering your user name and password. Then no one else can use the pilfered device. If recovered, it could be unlocked.

The kill switch would not affect the smartphone's GPS tracking ability.

When buying a new smartphone, the consumer could opt out of the kill switch and have it disabled. But short of that, it would be the default setting.

The telecom industry argues that a government mandate for kill switches is not necessary because recently it agreed to voluntarily make them available, and some manufacturers already are doing it. But the bill's backers note that consumers then must opt in, and many are neither aware of the possibility nor can figure out how to activate the locking mechanism.

And criminals know that.

"If I'm a thief looking to make a quick buck, I can play the odds," says San Francisco Dist. Atty. George Gascon, a prime promoter of the legislation. "If I rob two or three people, I know that at least one device will be unprotected.

"We're trying to modify behavior on the street, and that requires the universal application of kill switches. Once you have saturation in the market, with almost all phones having this technology, the motivation for robbing someone will drop to almost nothing. What they'd be stealing is a paperweight with no resale value."

Currently in San Francisco, the prosecutor says, two of three robberies involve smartphones. In Oakland, it's three of four.

In Los Angeles, smartphone robberies have increased 30% in the last two years. L.A. Police Chief Charlie Beck is one of the bill's biggest backers.

The most vulnerable spots for the robberies are coffee shops, bars and restaurants. Also grocery stores and gas stations.

"There have been some murders, throats cut" during smartphone robberies, Gascon says. "People resist, get hurt and need major reconstructive surgery. These are not pickpockets."

The D.A. adds: "You go to rob a bank with a gun, the risk is huge. But stalk somebody walking in downtown L.A., reading their email and distracted, it's easy. They get sucker-punched and their phone grabbed. It's sold within a matter of hours. And it can be exported and sold from $700 to $2,000."

Consumer Reports says that 3.1 million smartphones were stolen in the nation last year, twice as many as in 2012.

"The industry," Gascon asserts, "is looking every which way to block this legislation. Part of the reason is it's making lots of money — $30 billion a year — replacing lost and stolen phones, and about $7.7 billion selling insurance on them."

So who's more credible on this issue: Law enforcement, which is trying to deter crime, or the industry making money off the crime?

You'd think the telecommers would realize that by upgrading their products to make them less attractive to thieves, their sales might actually increase.

Here's what I think: This is another example of legal corruption in Sacramento.

george.skelton@latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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