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California Bill Requiring Cellphone "Kill Switch" Could Apply to Wide Range of Mobile Devices

As written, the bill could also apply to Wi-Fi-only tablets or perhaps even the iPod touch.

Shutterstock / Innershadows Photography

There’s no question that cellphone theft is a huge problem, accounting for a significant and growing percentage of all robberies, especially in big cities.

However, a California bill introduced on Friday to mandate that cellphones be equipped with a “kill switch” is written so broadly that it could apply to a wide range of devices, even Wi-Fi-only tablets.

The bill, sponsored by state Sen. Mark Leno, is designed to require device makers to ensure that stolen devices can’t be reactivated. However, as written, the bill would appear to apply to some devices that typically are never activated in the first place, such as tablets without cellular connectivity or perhaps even products like the iPod touch.

The proposed law would regulate the sale of an “advanced mobile communications device,” which is defined as “an electronic device that is regularly hand held when operated that enables the user to engage in voice communications using mobile telephony service, Voice over Internet Protocol, or Internet Protocol enabled service … and to connect to the Internet, and includes what are commonly known as smartphones and tablets.”

A spokesman for Leno declined to comment on whether the bill was meant to apply to Wi-Fi tablets in addition to smartphones and tablets with cellphone connections.

Prosecutors globally have banded together, seeking to compel the industry to include tighter antitheft measures to stem the rising tide of smartphone theft.

One of the challenges of theft reduction measures is that they have to be broad enough and widespread enough that it reduces the market for stolen devices to a degree that would-be thieves decide that the phones and tablets aren’t worth stealing.

Apple, for its part, has included an optional “activation lock” feature in iOS 7 that allows iPhone and iPad owners to prevent a device from being reactivated without the owner’s permission. Apple’s implementation actually does work even on non-cellular-equipped devices. However, many Android tablets don’t connect to a central server and, in some cases, don’t ever connect to the Internet, making implementation of a kill switch tricky.

Even in the cellphone industry, support for a kill switch has been tepid. Rather than back a kill switch, the U.S. cellular industry trade group CTIA has been touting its support for a database of stolen cellphones that carriers both here and potentially abroad could use to decide which devices should not be activated. T-Mobile, meanwhile, has bucked the trend, saying it is willing to support kill-switch legislation as long as proper safeguards are in place.

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