Meanwhile, Congress and the state legislature of California have tried to address the problem legislatively. The federal Smartphone Theft Prevention Act, introduced in the House by Rep. Jose Serrano (D-N.Y.) and in the Senate by Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) in February, would require that all mobile phones sold in the U.S. include a “kill switch,” which is a way to remotely erase data as well as render the phone inoperable if it’s stolen.
The bill is much tougher than the CTIA database, because it requires that phones be made inoperable globally by using technology that renders them useless on domestic and international networks.
“It is not done by telling international carriers not to turn the phone back on,” Serrano said, comparing the bill to the approach used by the CTIA database. “Under the requirements of the bill, if the kill switch is activated, there is nothing for international carriers to do because they won’t be able to turn the device back on.” The bill leaves it to manufacturers and carriers to figure out how to do that. It also requires that the phones must be capable of being restored and reactivated if the phone is eventually recovered.
The California law goes even further. If passed, SB 962 would require a similar measure be taken by 2015. But it also mandates that the kill-switch features be enabled when the phone is sold, which means users won’t have to worry about turning it on.
It might be difficult for the federal bill to pass, given the current climate in Congress. But it’s attracting lots of attention because of the numbers of phones stolen, and is at least raising awareness of the issues. Gascon’s office says it is optimistic about the California bill’s chances.
The closest thing to a kill switch already in the market is Apple’s Activation Lock feature. Available with iOS 7, it requires the user’s Apple ID and password before Find My iPhone can be turned off or the device can be erased and reactivated. Law-enforcement officials are generally happy with it, with one exception. “The only problem with Activation Lock is it’s not pre-enabled,” Gascon said. It also requires that location services be turned on, and many users don’t want their location tracked, so they leave those services disabled.
Samsung’s latest flagship phone, the Galaxy S 5, has a capability that promises to offer features similar to Apple’s Activation Lock. Currently, it’s available only on Verizon and U.S. Cellular, but more are expected to support it.