.New Opposition Emerges Against Smartphone Kill Switches

As smartphone kill switch legislation moves toward passage in Sacramento, new opposition is emerging against the bill — and it’s not from cellphone manufacturers and carriers. Instead, the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), a San Francisco-based advocacy group that is generally aligned with progressive causes, has decided to come out against SB 962 on the grounds that it might allow the government to turn off people’s cellphones in certain instances.
In a stern statement published on its website, the EFF states that SB 962, when combined with the technical advances that also allowed BART to shut down cell service during the 2011 Occupy Oakland protests, could pave the way for authorities to shut down smartphones more quickly. The changes made to the Public Utilities Code following the BART cell service shutdowns ban authorities from implementing them, yet they also oddly give authorities a legal path of justifying shutdowns. The EFF contends that when certain sections of the Public Utilities Code and SB 962 are viewed together, it gives government agencies a dangerous technical ability to shut down any smartphone.

“We’ve seen instances of governments abusing the ability to block communications both home and abroad; while this bill acknowledges safeguards to prevent such abuses in California, a large barrier — technical access to our phones — will have disappeared,” the EFF stated. InformationWeek has also echoed concerns of privacy and first amendment rights in kill switch legislation.

Despite the newly registered opposition to SB 962, the bill appears to be headed for passage. It has already cleared the state Senate and has now won approval from two Assembly committees. It’s scheduled for a full Assembly vote next week. The measure has backing from city mayors and from law enforcement groups because cellphone theft has led to a robbery epidemic nationwide.

“Once this bill is implemented as a consumer protection law, we know we will see fewer armed and strong-arm robberies,” Oakland Councilmember Dan Kalb said in a statement. “Our residents deserve to live free of the threat of violence and theft, and this will be a great step forward.” 

SB 962 is authored by state Senator Mark Leno, a liberal Democrat from San Francisco. The bill would require all smartphones to be equipped with a kill switch, a mechanism that prevents reactivations of stolen cell phones. Under the bill, consumers would have to opt out of using the kill switch.

Previously, cellphone manufacturers and carriers expressed opposition to kill switches, in a part because the replacement phone market has been so lucrative. It’s been valued at up to $30 billion.

Recent statistics indicate that kill switches deter phone theft as intended. Apple became the first major smartphone maker to adopt a kill switch with the release of iOS 7 in September. San Francisco District Attorney George Gascón said that iPhone robberies in the city have plummeted 38 percent since then, while thefts of other smartphones without kill switches increased. New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman reported the same trend in New York City.


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