Federal smartphone kill-switch legislation proposed

The bill would mandate a kill switch and remote-wipe capabilities on cellphones

Pressure on the cellphone industry to introduce technology that could disable stolen smartphones has intensified with the introduction of proposed federal legislation that would mandate such a system.

Senate bill 2032, "The Smartphone Prevention Act," was introduced to the U.S. Senate Wednesday by Amy Klobuchar, a Minnesota Democrat, and covers smartphones, tablets and any personal electronic device on which commercial mobile data service is provided.

It requires a function that allows the subscriber to remotely remove personal data stored on such devices and to render them inoperable on the networks of any mobile carrier globally. The function should also be resistant to the device getting reactivated by another carrier, reprogrammed or reset unless a passcode or similar authorization is provided by the subscriber.

The bill specifies that the remote wipe and "kill-switch" function "may only be used by the account holder" and will apply to all such devices manufactured or imported in the U.S. from Jan. 1, 2015. There is an exemption for "low-cost, voice-only" phones that have limited data functionality.

It also specifies that carriers "may not charge the account holder any fee for making the function ... available."

The penalty for breaking the rule, which will be included as an amendment to the Communications Act of 1947, isn't specified in the bill and will be determined by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC).

The co-sponsors are Democrats Barbara Mikulski of Maryland, Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut and Mazie Hirono of Hawaii.

The proposal follows the introduction last Friday of a bill in the California state senate that would mandate a "kill switch" starting in January 2015. The California bill has the potential to usher in kill-switch technology nationwide because carriers might not bother with custom phones just for California, but federal legislation would give it the force of law across the U.S.

Theft of smartphones is becoming an increasing problem in U.S. cities and the crimes often involve physical violence or intimidation with guns or knives.

In San Francisco, two-thirds of street theft involves a smartphone or tablet and the number is even higher in nearby Oakland. It also represents a majority of street robberies in New York and is rising in Los Angeles.

In some cases, victims have been killed for their phones.

In response to calls last year by law-enforcement officials to do more to combat the crimes, most cellphone carriers have aligned themselves behind the CTIA, the industry's powerful lobbying group. The CTIA is opposing any legislation that would introduce such technology.

An outlier is Verizon, which says that while it thinks legislation is unnecessary, it is supporting the group behind the California bill.

Some phone makers have been a little more proactive.

Apple in particular has been praised for the introduction of its activation lock feature in iOS7. The function would satisfy the requirements of the proposed California law with one exception: Phones will have to come with the function enabled by default so consumers have to make a conscious choice to switch it off. Currently, it comes as disabled by default.

Samsung has also added features to some of its phones that support the Lojack software, but the service requires an ongoing subscription.

Martyn Williams covers mobile telecoms, Silicon Valley and general technology breaking news for The IDG News Service. Follow Martyn on Twitter at @martyn_williams. Martyn's e-mail address is martyn_williams@idg.com

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