After months of campaigning for smartphone anti-theft legislation, San Francisco District Attorney George Gascon got what he wanted Monday: Governor Jerry Brown signed Bill SB 962 into California law, making “kill switches” mandatory on all new smartphones.
Starting next summer, all phones sold in the state must have a built-in feature that renders the device inoperable to strangers or thieves, and it must be activated by default. The idea is to discourage smartphone theft, a problem plaguing law enforcement across the country.
The issue may be particularly acute in San Francisco—where it accounts for nearly two-thirds of robberies; in Oakland, it’s three out of four—but according to Consumer Reports, a total of 3.1 million Americans were victims of smartphone theft in 2013, twice the number of the year prior.
With smartphone crime becoming epidemic everywhere, other states are likely watching California intently now, possibly to follow its cue. To get some perspective on what that means for the everyday consumer, let’s start with some fundamentals.
5 Things To Know About California’s New Kill Switch Law
Interpreting the law can be tough for any layperson. But in this case, it boils down to a handful of basics:
(1) Only California requires that kill switches are enabled in new smartphones by default, for now. (Kill switches are also mandated in Minnesota, but users must turn it on themselves.)
(2) The law only applies to smartphones, not tablets or any other devices.
(3) The law won’t take effect until next year. Phones sold after July 1, 2015 will be legally required to comply.
(4) Retailers or other companies could be penalized as much as $500 to $2,500 per gadget, if they don’t comply.
(5) Wireless association CTIA is opposed to this law. Its position: Kill switches give hackers another way to mess with people’s devices. But skeptics believe the group is just trying to protect its member companies—the smartphone makers and carriers who profit from replacement phones.
Jaime Hastings, the association’s vice president of external and state affairs, said in a prepared statement, “Today’s action was unnecessary given the breadth of action the industry has taken.” He’s talking about the group’s Smartphone Anti-Theft Voluntary Commitment, a promise that some tech companies and carriers have made to make free anti-theft tools available to users.
Smartphone titans Apple and Samsung both offer security features that block locked (read: lost or stolen) iPhones and Galaxy phones from being reactivated, unless the user enters the registered owner’s proper credentials.
These are essentially the same kill switches California state legislators want, with one major difference: They aren’t loaded and turned on by default. So if users don’t take action, the features do no good.
A Potential Can Of Worms For Everybody
Hastings also said something else worth pondering:
Uniformity in the wireless industry created tremendous benefits for wireless consumers, including lower costs and phenomenal innovation. State by state technology mandates, such as this one, stifle those benefits and are detrimental to wireless consumers.
He has a point. If some states adopt this law, but others don’t, maintaining compliance whenever devices cross state lines could be a nightmare of complication and expense for tech companies and carriers. The next logical question is who would cover those costs? Likely you and me, the consumers. Think extra fees, inflated retail prices or both.
In that light, Hastings comments could be taken as a veiled threat, though a lot would depend on the execution. A few extra cents might be fine, a small price to pay for peace of mind. As someone who experienced a snatch-and-grab recently, I’d gladly sacrifice a couple of dimes if it means I don’t have to walk in fear with a white-knuckled grip on my phone.
The big question is whether these companies can be trusted not to play fast and loose with fee-gouging shenanigans. After all, policing all those transactions would be difficult, to say the least. And cell phone bills are already indecipherable. (Do you know what Administrative Fees, County Gross Receipts Surcharges, Federal Universal Service Charges, MTA Telecom Surcharges and numerous other enigmatic fees are? Neither do most people.) If companies wanted to make up for some of their lost profits, who’d notice a few other charges hiding in there?
Some folks might save the lump sums that would’ve gone to replacement devices, but over time, everyone’s wallets could suffer a death by a thousand cuts. Hopefully things won’t go that far. Because it would mean, en masse, that people are just trading one type of victimization for another.
Lead image by zombieite.