SF District Attorney Points Accusing Finger At State Senators Who Voted Against Cell Phone Kill Switches

Legislation that would require smartphones to come equipped with an anti-theft deterrent known as a “kill switch” failed to pass the state Senate today.

SB 962, co-authored by state Sen. Mark Leno, D-San Francisco and Assemblywoman Nancy Skinner, D-Berkeley, and strongly supported by law enforcement including San Francisco District Attorney George Gascon, needed 21 votes to pass but received only 19 in a vote today on the senate floor, according to proponents.

However, the bill, which met with opposition from the cell phone and insurance industries, has been granted reconsideration and could be brought back for a vote before the end of May.

Leno said he remained hopeful that legislators will see the need for the bill, which would be the first law of its kind in the country if it passed. The kill switch, which allows phone owners to remotely wipe and lock a stolen phone, is intended to deter cell phone thefts by making them difficult to resell and reuse.

“Smart phone thefts have doubled nationwide in the past year, largely because the wireless industry has refused to implement existing, theft-deterrent technology that would render all phones useless if stolen,” Leno said.

Gascon called the vote “disheartening” and said the 17 legislators who voted against the bill were choosing to protect industry profits over the safety of their constituents.

“This technology already exists, but it needs to be deployed in a way which doesn’t rely on consumers to seek out the solutions and turn them on,” Gascon said. “That’s all this legislation does, it takes existing technology and makes it a standard feature on all smart phones.”

The bill is inspired by a rising epidemic of smart phone thefts that Leno has called a public safety crisis. Consumer Reports announced earlier this month that 3.1 million American consumers were victims of smart phone thefts in 2013, a figure that is nearly double those reported for 2012.

More than 50 percent of all robberies in San Francisco involve the theft of a mobile phone, a rate that rises to 75 percent in Oakland, Leno said when he announced the legislation in February.

Oakland City Councilman Dan Kalb was among those decrying the bill’s failure today, saying the state senate “did a dumb thing today.”

“As an Oakland local elected officials and the victim of an armed robbery, I know that if and when this bill becomes law, it will reduce armed robberies in Oakland and throughout the state,” Kalb said.

Under the bill, all smart phones sold starting on Jan. 1, 2015, would come pre-equipped with theft-deterring technology that renders the phone useless if stolen. Consumers would have the choice to opt out of the kill switch.

The Cellular Telecommunications Industry Association, a wireless industry group, has opposed the legislation, saying it would limit consumer choice and industry innovation, and invite hackers to exploit legislated protection solutions.

Earlier this month, the CTIA announced a competing, voluntary anti-theft initiative calling for all new phones to come with a preloaded or downloadable baseline anti-theft system capable of remotely locking and wiping a phone.

However, proponents of SB 962 say the voluntary anti-theft measures are opt-in, rather than opt-out, and rely on consumers to take extra steps to protect themselves.

Supporters of the kill switch have argued that the industry actually makes money off of cell phone thefts and has a financial incentive to allow them to continue.

Leno has said the replacement of lost and stolen smartphones and tablets is a $30 billion business in the United States, and the nation’s four biggest wireless carriers make around $7.8 billion on theft and loss insurance products.

A report released in March by Creighton University business Professor William Duckworth found that a kill switch could save Americans up to $2.6 billion a year. That estimate included around $58 million spent per year replacing stolen phones, and $4.8 billion for cell phone insurance.

Sara Gaiser, Bay City News

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