California Senate Passes Cell 'Kill Switch' Bill: Good Idea?

By William Peacock, Esq. on May 13, 2014 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

Last month, we mentioned on our Technologist blog that a great debate was erupting in California over a proposed smartphone "kill switch" bill, one that would mandate that manufacturers include an on-by-default security feature that remotely disables and wipes stolen cell phones. Manufacturers and carriers were not happy, to say the least, and proposed an alternative -- an opt-in model.

The bill quickly died, making this entire debate much ado about nothing, until a tweak to the bill satisfied a couple of Silicon Valley tech firms and the resurrected legislation passed the state Senate, with an Assembly debate guaranteed, reports the San Jose Mercury News.

A "kill switch" seems like an obvious feature to include, so what is the debate all about?

Reasons for an Opt-Out Kill Switch

These may a bit obvious, so we'll toss out one word: theft.

Since the advent of the "Jesus phone," the $600 devices have been a magnet for robbery. A thief can strong-arm or hold-up pretty much any random person on the street and chances are, they'll have a smartphone that can be wiped and resold on eBay or craigslist. There are already software solutions in place (Apple's Find My iPhone, for example), but those are opt-in, which inevitably means laziness creates a market for stolen phones.

Reasons for an Opt-In Kill Switch

They say "as California goes, so goes the nation." But that isn't always the case. See, for example, our taxation, smog laws, etc.

If California passes the "kill switch" law, it could mean a nationwide kill switch by default. Or, we end up with an annoying patchwork of opt-in and opt-out states. (The former does seem more likely, especially since other states likely would follow, since smartphone theft is not a California-only problem.)

Other companies might point to the cost of compliance and the harsh penalties in the bill -- a $2,500 fine per phone if a kill switch is omitted. This concern was obviated, somewhat, by the aforementioned revision to the bill, which delayed the effective date to phones manufactured after July 1, 2015. The revision was enough to sway Apple and Microsoft to sign off on the bill.

One other reason that has been put forward is domestic violence. Sen. Jim Beall, D-San Jose noted that his constituents called him up until the minute of the vote, concerned over the possibility that an abusive partner could remotely locate and disable a victim's phone. He hopes that the Assembly will modify the bill to address the issue.

The Real Reason for Opposition?

Have you ever been offered phone insurance? Or, have you ever had to buy a phone off-contract?

The San Jose Mercury News notes that lost and stolen phone and tablet replacement is a $300 billion business in the U.S., and the big four wireless carriers rake in nearly $8 billion annually on theft and loss insurance policies. Maybe that explains, at least in part, why these companies, which make up CTIA-The Wireless Association, a powerful trade group, fought the initial bill and are expected to continue the debate in the Assembly.

What do you think of a on-by-default "kill switch"? Great idea or no? Tweet us your thoughts @FindLawLP.

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