California Gov. Jerry Brown signed legislation Monday that requires all smartphones sold in California starting in July 2015 to come with a so-called kill switch, an anti-theft feature that allows the smartphone's owner to completely shut the phone down remotely in the event it is stolen. After the user has remotely activated the kill switch, the smartphone would be rendered useless. Details of how the feature would work is up to the manufacturers.
In 2012, 1.6 million Americans had their handheld device stolen, according to the National Consumers League. California leads all states in reports of smartphone thefts, accounting for more than half the crimes in Oakland, San Francisco and other cities in the state, according to the organization.
"I think California is barking up the right tree but doing it in an odd way by forcing vendors to come with this feature in their smart devices," said Robby Hill, founder and CEO of Florence, S.C.-based solution provider HillSouth. "It's a great idea, and I'm sure it's well thought out, but I just think smartphones need to become more ubiquitous so everyone has access to them. This [legislation] will drive up costs and this is the wrong way to drive the industry forward."
Some states are considering similar bills. Minnesota passed its own legislation in May but does not require the technology to be enabled by default.
Prior to the signing of the bill, some major manufacturers, including Google, Samsung and Apple, voluntarily included software on their devices that allowed users to remotely wipe data in the event their device was stolen. The difference is that it was the user's preference as to whether the technology would be featured on their phone. With this new legislation, it is now mandatory.
As the most populated state, the question for manufacturers is whether they will customize smartphones for sale in California or whether they will include the feature in all devices they build.
"The cost benefit analysis is probably being done right now by all the manufacturers, knowing it'll cost people more money," said Hill. "Manufacturers will have tougher times in that state. It remains to seen how it'll be implemented California, and possibly the rest of our country will have higher costs if the manufacturers decide to just implement it to everybody."
Businesses often have this sort of technology in company devices, Hill said, but "for non-business users, this is a waste of money."
Hill and other solution providers say that the government forcing this technology onto consumer devices does raise some concerns. Police will be able to use the tool to "interrupt communications" as the legislation cites Section 7908 of the Public Utilities code, which gives authorities the ability to cut off phone service in certain instances such as the request of a court order or an emergency situation where someone is in immediate danger.
"The devil is in the details," said David Felton, founder of Canaan Technology, a Norwalk, Conn-based solution provider. "The kill switch feature already exists through third-party applications. If the legislatures were truly concerned only with the ability of the end user to remotely lock and wipe a phone, then they would have simply crafted a bill that required each carrier to preload an application for the end user to set up, just like the new iOS7 will include. The fact that the legislation states local law enforcement has the ability to activate this feature is where there is potential for abuse."
PUBLISHED AUG. 26, 2014