CA smartphone "kill switch" law shows the government's increased understanding of tech

By Nathaniel Mott , written on August 26, 2014

From The News Desk

California Governor Jerry Brown has signed into law a bill requiring smartphone manufacturers to include anti-theft features with all devices sold after July 15, 2015.

The bill will make it easier for consumers to protect their personal information by allowing them to activate a so-called "kill switch" after someone steals their smartphone. It's also meant to discourage thefts by preventing stolen devices from being used after that kill switch is used.

Brown's decision to sign the bill into law reflects increasing awareness of the sheer amount of personal information stored on many smartphones. As James Robinson wrote in a blog post describing his own lackadaisical approach to securing some of his most sensitive information:

While I carry little cash on me, I have a smartphone on me at all times. My iPhone carries no password. My Gmail app remains forever logged in. In my email, there is record of my passport number, my pin code, social security, bank accounts and the two standard passwords I use for pretty much everything.

Which is dumb, especially when in the past week, 25 people have been robbed within a mile of my apartment, many in broad daylight. Those thieves didn't just take devices that can be sold for hundreds of dollars to people who aren't worried about buying stolen goods -- they also took a record of sensitive information that could be used to clear a checking account, steal an identity, or get access to other data.

This bill shows that Brown understands the implications of a stolen smartphone, and he's not the only one: the Supreme Court ruled in June that police officers cannot search through a smartphone without first obtaining a warrant because of the vast data stored on the devices.

As Chief Justice John Roberts Jr. explained in the Supreme Court's decision:

Cell phones differ in both a quantitative and a qualitative sense from other objects that might be kept on an arrestee's person. The term "cell phone" is itself misleading shorthand; many of these devices are in fact minicomputers that also happen to have the capacity to be used as a telephone. They could just as easily be called cameras, video players, rolodexes, calendars, tape recorders, libraries, diaries, albums, televisions, maps, or newspapers.
The protections afforded by this bill and the Supreme Court's ruling show that the government is at least beginning to understand this fact. Hopefully other states will introduce similar laws to extend those protections to people who don't live in the Golden State. (Which isn't to say that California is the first to introduce a "kill switch" law; that honor belongs to Minnesota.)

Now, as Robinson notes in his mea culpa about his own habits, it's up to consumers to change their behavior and realize just how valuable the information on their smartphones really is. The government can't hold their hands and protect them from thieves indefinitely, after all.

[illustration by Brad Jonas]