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Proposed California law demands anti-theft 'kill switch' in all smartphones

With robberies escalating, SF attorney demands deterrent tech

Internet Security Threat Report 2014

California may soon become the first US state to require mobile phone makers to include a feature that can remotely disable their handsets in the event they are stolen.

A new law proposed by California state Senator Mark Leno and San Francisco District Attorney George Gascón would require all smartphones sold in the state to include a remote-controllable "kill switch" as a deterrent against theft.

"One of the top catalysts for street crime in many California cities is smartphone theft, and these crimes are becoming increasingly violent," Leno said in a statement.

The issue is not a new one for Gascón, who along with New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, has been crusading for greater smartphone security in light of what has been described as an epidemic of mobile phone theft.

In Gascón's home city of San Francisco, which falls within Leno's jurisdiction, more than half of all robberies now involve a smartphone, according to police statistics.

But although some phone vendors offer remote deactivation – Apple introduced Activation Lock for iPhones with the release of iOS 7, for example, to Gascón's approval – most do not, which means smartphone thieves can quickly and easily sell the devices to eager bargain-hunters.

Gascón has accused the mobile phone industry of dragging its feet on the issue, saying that although he had managed to convince smartphone titan Samsung to bundle LoJack security software with its devices, the major wireless carriers rejected the proposal, believing it would eat into their profits: fewer thefts would mean fewer sales.

Now Gascón's patience is running out. "I appreciate the efforts that many of the manufacturers are making, but the deadline we agreed upon is rapidly approaching and most do not have a technological solution in place," Gascón said.

If Leno's proposed law passes the California legislature, all new smartphones sold in the state will be required to include some form of kill switch.

Leno says he plans to formally introduce the bill in early January at the start of the 2014 legislative session. ®

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