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California May Be First State to Require Smartphone "Kill Switch"

California may become the only state in the Union to require that all smartphones be sold with a “kill switch,” or a feature that can wipe the phone of all usefulness, making it an expensive brick. State Senator Mark Leno has introduced a bill requiring the feature because of the prevalence of phone thefts, claiming that such robberies are becoming “increasingly violent.”

According to USA Today, “more than 50 percent of all robberies involve the theft of a mobile device, and in Los Angeles mobile phone thefts are up almost 12 percent in the last year.” Although, like watches, jewelry, or other things taken during street robberies, the phone may simply be another item up-for-grabs rather than the impetus for the crime.

Critics of the kill-switch law, including many cellular carriers, say that insisting this feature be made available in all phones could lead to rushed technology that would be vulnerable to hackers. Those hackers could shut down law enforcement or public citizens’ phones in order to create mayhem. Similarly, some fear that the kill switches could be used by authorities to shut down phones in situations ranging from mild civil disobedience to full-blown martial law. According to RT.com, Samsung reportedly offered to install the feature on their device, but the proposal “was rebuffed by wireless carriers who feared it would cut into their sales of phone insurance.”

California Attorney General George Gascón also threw his support behind the bill, providing results from a survey of iPhone users who have taken advantage of a similar feature on that phone. Although, rather than being a catch-all, the app only kills the phone if someone tries to disable the location features without the proper password. Each phone—Apple or other brand—has a mobile equipment identifier or MEID number which identifies the device, which could be another avenue to pursue. 

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