Smartphone kill switch plan stumbles

For months, the mobile industry has been keeping an eye on a growing legislative movement to mandate a user-controlled kill switch for smartphones. Most notably, the California State Senate has been debating a bill that would require kill switches on phones. But after months of discussion and compromise, Senate Bill 962 failed by 21 votes last week.

This came after some last minute concessions. State Senator Mark Leno, for example, accepted two critical changes to the bill: Not only was the bill scoped down to cover only smartphones rather than phones and tablets, but the bill would not take effect until July 2015, a six-month delay.

All of this comes as a result of increased smartphone thefts. Some reports claim that 41 percent of all serious crime in the city of San Francisco is cellphone theft, and there are days in which the only serious crimes on the police blotter are smartphone thefts.

The bill would have required that smartphones be capable of being disabled by password -- a password that only the owner had access to. And while the carriers would be explicitly barred from disabling phones, activists have raised questions about the implications of the bill. If all smartphones could be remotely disabled, for example, would police and government agencies have the ability to cut off the phones of private citizens? That question might already be partially answered -- police would likely need to adhere to the existing Section 7908 of the California Public Utilities Code, which specifies that such an action requires a warrant and can be invoked if there is an "immediate danger of death or great bodily injury."

There are also questions about whether the kill switch could be invoked maliciously by family members -- such as during a divorce. And even if these problems could be overcome, many people question the ultimate usefulness of the law to begin with. Even if a smartphone is completely disabled, for example, it still has substantial value in spare parts, and there's no way to mitigate that.

All that said, the bill has met failure -- for now -- giving the mobile industry time to cobble together a solution that complies with the intent of the law without the mandatory enforcement of a state law. That's good, because California legislation would likely force changes to all smartphones sold in the US, or even worldwide, due to the challenges of selling a different handset in a specific state or region.

It's worth noting that even as California wrestled with kill switch technology, two of the most popular smartphone vendors already offer kill switch technology as standard equipment in their handsets: Apple and Samsung.

All iPhones running iOS 7 can make use of Apple's activation lock, which allows you to prevent anyone from erasing, activating, or otherwise using your phone without knowing your Apple ID and password. Meanwhile, Samsung partners with LoJack, which embeds its device recovery software on all of its smartphones. Apple's solution is free, but Samsung's LoJack service requires an annual subscription fee (though it's free for the first year).

Photo courtesy Flickr user Tim Regan