This past summer, California Governor Jerry Brown signed Senate Bill 962, more commonly known as the cell phone "kill switch" measure, into law.
The law, which takes effect next July, requires that all smartphones sold in the state of California to come equipped with a kill switch that the owner can use to disable the device if it is stolen.
Such smartphone features have existed for a while, although they are not turned on by default. In particular, the iPhone's iOS 7 platform, which was released a year ago, had Apple's Activation Lock. What's new with iOS 8 is that the Activation Lock is turned on by default. That makes the iPhone 6 and iPhone 6 Plus the first -- and currently only -- phones sold in California that are fully compatible with the new law.
If an iOS 8 device with Activation Lock turned on is stolen, the owner can "brick" the phone pretty easily, rendering it useless to thieves. Just open iCloud.com in a browser, click Find My Phone and wait for the phone to appear on the map. Then select the phone. From there you can place the phone in Lost Mode - which locks the phone with a passcode, displays a custom message on the lock screen (including a phone number for someone to reach you) and continuously track the phone. If you are concerned the phone has been stolen, you can choose to simply erase it, which wipes all personal data.
The Activation Lock can also be disabled by the phone's owner. To do that, go to Settings and tap iCloud, then Find My Phone. Then Turn off Find My Phone -- that automatically disables the Activation Lock.
Apple also has introduced a handy tool that lets you check whether a phone's Activation Lock is enabled. This is convenient if you are purchasing a used iPhone. Entering the phone's serial number into the Web page allows you to quickly check if the phone is still locked by the previous owner. If so, you can ask the owner to disable Find My Phone and restore the phone to its factory settings -- or perhaps learn that the phone is, in fact, stolen.
The ability to disable new iPhones via the Activation Lock appears to already have had an effect on smartphone theft in some cities. New York, for example, has reported a 19 percent drop in thefts of iOS devices. San Francisco reports an even more impressive 38 percent drop in iPhone theft.