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Tuesday, August 26, 2014

California Bill Requiring Cell Phone "Kill Switches" Signed Into Law

From The Hill:

California has become the first state in the nation to require that cellphones come with a preloaded “kill switch." 
Gov. Jerry Brown (D) on Monday signed into law a bill requiring every smartphone sold in the state to include the anti-theft feature, which makes phones inoperable, by July, his office announced.

Supporters of the mandatory kill switches say that they make phones less attractive to thieves and would help reduce theft.
I blogged about this bill earlier, and concluded that it was a good idea. By requiring kill switches on smartphones, stolen smartphones will be virtually worthless, since they will most likely be deactivated once they are stolen. This would render the phone useless to the thief or to anybody to whom the thief hopes to sell the phone.

The Hill notes that there is some opposition to the bill. Some are worried that this requirement will give the government power to silence protesters, citing recent events in Ferguson. And others argue that a better way to employ kill switch technology is to make it optional, so as to avoid overly hasty deactivation of phones. For example, Minnesota passed a law that requires all smartphones to have the ability to enable kill switch technology, but did not require that the technology be pre-loaded onto the phone when sold.

While both of these concerns have merit, the California law is still a good idea. While there is a possibility that police could abuse this technology to silence protesters, I think that the probability of this happening is low. Police would need to gain electronic access to the phones through the phone company and then obtain access to each phone they wish to disable. This would require preparation and coordination, rather than the impulsiveness of the decisions by police in Ferguson to silence protesters. While government abuse of kill switch technology may be possible, I think that it is less likely to occur than other forms of suppression.

From an incentives perspective, mandating kill switch technology on phones is preferable to requiring an option for the technology. The main reason for this law is to reduce theft of smartphones by removing the incentive to steal the phones. If a phone will become useless once it is stolen, there is very little reason to steal it. But if there is a possibility that the phone's owner has not downloaded kill switch technology, then stealing the phone may be worth it, since there is a possibility that the user did not install the kill switch technology. By mandating kill switch technology on all smartphones, California essentially guarantees that all stolen phones (sold after July 2015) are worthless. And this could have a substantial impact on incentives to steal these phones in the first place.

It will be interesting to see how theft rates of smartphones are impacted in the wake of this new law. Hopefully this law leads to a decline in smartphone theft, and if it does, I would not be surprised to see other states pass similar laws.

UPDATE: 8/27/2014

Here is the New York Times' report on the law, which includes additional coverage of the debate over the bill's merits, as well as some statistics regarding cell phone thefts and the impact of deterrence measures.

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