Taking a Closer Look at the “Kill Switch” Law for Smartphones

What is the “Kill Switch” law?

Senate Bill No. 962, introduced in the California Senate on August 2014 and authored by Senator Mark Leno, proposed adding an act to Section 22761 to the Business and Professions Code. The specific language of S.B. 962 required “any smartphone… that is manufactured on or after July 1, 2015, and sold in California after that date, include a technological solution at the time of sale… that, once initiated and successfully communicated to the smartphone, can render inoperable the essential features… of the smartphone to an unauthorized user when the smartphone is not in the possession of an authorized user.” Governor Brown signed the bill into law on August 25, 2014.

What does S.B. 962 mean and why do we need it?

While the language of S.B. 962 may seem hard to understand, the proposal itself is very simple. With the approval of Bill, any smartphone manufactured or sold in California on or after July 1, 2015 must include an optional and reversible “kill switch.” The kill switch must be optional so that the owner of the phone or an authorized user is able to opt-out of the function. The kill switch must be reversible so that an authorized user is able to unlock and utilize the functions of the phone if it is obtained after being in the possession of an unauthorized user. An example would be a stolen phone being found and returned to the rightful owner. The goal of this law was to deter the surge in violent smartphone thefts. Many law enforcement officials, including the Chief of the Los Angeles Police Department, believed S.B. 962 would effectively reduce incidents of cell phone theft.

What is the problem with S.B. 962?

Up to this point, you may be thinking this new is absolutely great! Not only does it protect smartphone owners, it also has the potential to decrease rates of violent cell phone thefts. However, there is a problem. The problem is that this new law would be directed at  smartphone retailers, not manufacturers. Retailers knowingly selling a phone in violation of S.B. 962 may be punished with a civil penalty of $500 and at most $2,500 per smartphone. The same penalties apply if the kill switch can be easily circumvented by hackers and the retailer is aware of this. The key to these civil penalties is knowledge on behalf of the retailers, which can be tricky to prove since the law does not require retailers to give written notification of either compliance or noncompliance with the new law. For example, while Wal-Mart acknowledged the new law and said they would try their best to adhere to it, Best Buy has remained quiet. Critics also claim the penalties for this law are absurd because they exceed the amount spent on buying an average smartphone.

Since the new law applies to retailers of phones, its influence carries beyond California State Lines. Therefore, S.B. 962 may be infringing on Congress’s power to regulate interstate commerce. However, the law was successfully passed after being signed by Governor Brown in August 2014. No mention of interstate commerce or infringing on Congress’s right was made in the bill or during the signing.

How effective has S.B. 962 been?

The “Kill Switch” law has been in effect for almost two years and the technology industry is very pleased. In a study published by Consumer Reports, the number of cell phone thefts dropped from 3.1 million to 2.1 million in the year following S.B. 962. A former smartphone thief also said he would think twice about stealing a smartphone with a kill switch because he is not interested in stealing a phone he cannot access. S.B. 962 has been effective so far and the hope is that smartphone thefts will continue to decrease in the coming years.

Sources referenced:

  1. JD Supra
  2. CNET
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