California brings ‘Kill Switch’ bill to crime fight

Mobile Users by Joe Shoe for Flickr CC -
Mobile Users by Joe Shoe for Flickr CC -

WASHINGTON, February 22, 2014 — Members of the California Assembly have introduced Senate bill 962, which would mandate that “advanced mobile communications devices” — smartphones, tablets and similar personal devices — must “include a technological solution, which may consist of software, hardware, or both software and hardware, that can render (it) inoperable” in the event that it is stolen.

To implement these regulatory requirements, the bill would “prohibit the sale of an advanced mobile communications device in California without the technological solution being enabled.” The move, if successful, would require all mobile devices sold in California to have embedded in them a government-sponsored kill-switch.

California’s nanny state proclivities are no surprise to residents of the state or to outside observers looking in, but the overreach of the state’s Democratic legislature in this bill comes is surprising nonetheless.

The arguments for this tech kill-switch are veiled under the guise of public safety. The Senate bill is seemingly in response to an increase in the number of robberies and thefts that directly involve mobile devices. In fact, according to police statistics in Oakland, 75 percent of robberies there involve a mobile device.

These figures are jarring, but some mobile device makers and service providers already provide solutions that effectively deal with the issue. Apple provides a “Find My Mac” feature that allows you to remotely lock or erase a stolen or misplaced iPhone, iPad, or MacBook. This feature is already available to Apple consumers, and it’s free.

Apple is not the only company with security safeguards in place for their products. Google provides a native-application known as the Android Device Manager, which allows consumers to locate lost devices, reset device locks, and is capable of erasing all data on a phone.

That one’s free, too.

Aside from established mobile device manufacturers who offer anti-theft measures, the app stores for major mobile service providers contain an abundance of anti-theft products, which are offered to consumers by third-parties at low cost. Many of those applications are free to download, install, and use too.

Anti-theft applications, whether natively available for a mobile device or added on as a third-party application, all serve as supplemental features that consumers may use, install, or ignore. The firms that create them compete in a free-market that provides ample information to help consumers distinguish one product from competing product offerings. These differences include cost, capabilities, services, design, interface and so on.

These product differentiators help to define the operating landscape for the mobile device industry and give competing firms the possibility of finding advantages in the industry. These features are, by their very nature, definable, and measurable; they allow consumers to make educated decisions as to how to prioritize their preferences given their own needs and budget.

California legislators are proposing to regulate and mandate the inclusion of product features into consumer electronics when these features already exist in abundance and are readily available to the vast majority of mobile device users. The intrusiveness of this bill into a market where it is so absolutely unnecessary is astonishing, even in California.

The political convenience of ignoring crime

State Senator Mark Leno, D-San Francisco, who introduced Senate Bill 962, justifies this impending regulatory grab via the public safety narrative. He claims that the measure will help eliminate the temptation to steal these devices and will thus reduce robbery rates on its own.

“This is a crime of convenience,” Sen. Leno explained during a recent press conference. “We end the convenience, we end the crimes; it’s that simple.”

It is that simple minded, but not that simple. The Senator’s assertion involves a logical fallacy that ignores the availability of preexisting solutions and the more complex problem at hand.

In 2013, the Oakland Tribune labeled the city of Oakland “The Robbery Capital of America,” based on an analysis of FBI crime statistics. Not only did Oakland take the top prize for most robberies, it led the runner up, Cleveland, by a staggering 36 percent.

Leno and his legislative supporters will continue to frame the debate as a direct approach to reducing the surge in local crime rates, particularly robberies. However, Leno and others who support this bill should ask whether the rise in robberies of mobile devices really does represent crimes of convenience, or whether state lawmakers are conveniently ignoring the central issues of endemic crime.

Oakland is not a singularity, where the security services offered by mobile device makers are uniquely ineffective compared to the rest of the country. If crime in the Bay area is unusually high, it isn’t because the state has failed in its duty to regulate technology. To blame technology for the failures of crime prevention in California is the real criminal behavior.


Follow Tim on Twitter @CyberTimbo.

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Timothy W. Coleman
Timothy W. Coleman is a writer, analyst, and a technophile. He co-founded two security technology startup firms, one of which was selected as Entrepreneur Magazine’s “100 Most Brilliant Companies.” Tim started off on Capitol Hill, worked on a successful U.S. Senate campaign, and subsequently joined a full-service, technology marketing communications firm. Previously, he was an intelligence analyst for a DC-based service providing global intelligence and forecasting from former CIA, U.S. intelligence and national security officers. Currently, he is the Editor-at-Large for Homeland Security Today. Tim completed his B.A. from Georgetown University, an M.B.A. in Finance from Barry University, a Graduate Studies Program at Singularity University at NASA Ames Research Center, and a Master’s of Public and International Affairs with a major in Security and Intelligence Studies at the University of Pittsburgh. Tim volunteers and serves as a member of the board of directors at the Lint Center for National Security Studies. Read more about Tim here and follow him on Twitter @timothywcoleman.
  • Cyber T

    And to compound matters, Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md. just introduced The Smartphone Theft Prevention Act, which would essentially mandate that the FCC compel phone companies to develop and implement technology on a national level.