Smartphone 'Kill Switch' Law in California; Will Other States Follow?
California’s new law aimed at deterring cellphone theft is likely to mean most mobile phones sold anywhere in the U.S. will soon include similar “kill-switch” technology. The legislation, approved by the California Assembly earlier this month, was signed into law Monday by Gov. Jerry Brown.
While many smartphones already enable owners to remotely shut off some or all functions if the devices are lost or stolen, users can decide whether or not to take advantage of those capabilities. The California law, on the other hand, requires that capability to be included by default.
The measure also allows government agencies to use the kill switch in certain circumstances where there is an “immediate danger to public safety, health, or welfare.” Critics worry such exemptions could enable clampdowns on social media use, filming and mobile communications during public protests.
In May, Minnesota became the first state in the U.S. to enact kill-switch legislation. However, with the law’s passage in California, kill-switch technology is likely to soon be built into any new cellphones sold anywhere in the country. Given the size of California’s market, cellphone manufacturers will probably find it easier to make all new devices comply with the state law.
‘Pretty Troubling to Us’
As in Minnesota, California’s legislation was aimed at the “growing epidemic of smartphone theft.” The bill authored by California Sen. Mark Leno pointed to the 12 percent increase in cellphone thefts in Los Angeles in 2012. It also noted that more than half of all robberies in San Francisco involved the theft of a mobile phone.
Opponents of such legislation have argued it is both unnecessary and could pose a potential threat to the constitutionally protected rights of free speech and free assembly. We reached out to Jake Laperruque at the Center for Democracy and Technology (CDT) to learn more about such concerns.
The California law that allows authorities to use the kill switch under certain emergency conditions, is “pretty troubling to us,” said Laperruque, who is the CDT’s fellow on privacy, surveillance and security. While the protections spelled out under the state’s Public Utilities Code are “usually pretty good,” he said, “we’ve actually seen this before.”
Laperruque cited a 2011 incident in which San Francisco officials shut down cellphone service to several downtown Bay Area Rapid Transit stations ahead of planned public protests. Demonstrators protesting the July 3 fatal shooting of Charles Blair Hill by transit police found cellphone reception blocked for three hours.
CTIA: Make Switch Voluntary
Both the CDT and the Electronic Frontier Foundation voiced their opposition to the California legislation before it was signed into law.
The recent events in Ferguson, Missouri, following the police shooting death of an unarmed 18-year-old, Michael Brown, “highlight the risks of abuse all too clearly,” Laperruque said on the CDT’s Web site. “If the California bill were in place in Missouri, these officers might deploy the government kill switch alongside tear gas and rubber bullets, using the mandated technology to stop coordination between protesters, cut off access to outside information, and shut down video recordings that can deter police misconduct.”
The CTIA Wireless Association also opposed the bill, arguing that phone companies had already agreed to support kill-switch technologies by July 2015 under the trade organization’s voluntary commitment.
Several other bills connected to cellphone kill-switch technology have been proposed in states such as New York, and as well as in the U.S. Congress, although there hasn’t been much action on those up until now, Laperruque noted. A proposal backed by Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, for example, would limit use of the technology to the just the cellphone owner.
Posted: 2014-08-27 @ 9:13pm PT
@Reid Mason: It's true that there's potential for government abuse. But seriously... saying the Ferguson PD went out of their way to violate everyone's civil liberties is RIDICULOUS. They've shown tremendous restraint -- too much restraint -- letting the criminals riot and rule the streets in Ferguson.
Posted: 2014-08-27 @ 8:47pm PT
Considering how the Ferguson PD went out of their way to violate everyone's civil liberties, any kill-switch legislation is a horrible idea. The potential for police/government abuse would be gigantic.
Posted: 2014-08-27 @ 9:20am PT
I've been voluntarily locking my home & car doors and using Lookout Mobile Security ( www.lookout.com ) on my Smartphone for years. Government should NEVER be given a #KillSwitch for Free Speech!
”Those who give up their liberty for more security neither deserve liberty nor security.”