California is on the brink of becoming the first state to require kill switches in smartphones. The state's senate passed a bill this week mandating the security change, and it is now up to Governor Jerry Brown to sign it and make it law. The state's efforts are laudable, but may be moot at this point.
The law has been years in the making. Lawmakers in California and New York are looking to curb the theft of smartphones, which has spiked in recent years. Smartphones are easy pickings when left unattended on tables in coffee shops, restaurants, and bars, and they are often snatched out of owners' hands by brazen thieves on the street and in subways. According to the NYPD, 8,000 Apple products -- mostly iPhones -- were stolen in New York City during 2013. Some of the robberies led to injuries and even deaths.
The idea behind the kill switch is simple: Make stolen phones unusable. Unusable phones won't score thieves any cash. There's less incentive to steal smartphones if they'll be rendered useless and can't be sold. The kill switch is something device owners can trigger remotely from their desktop or other mobile device, such as a tablet.
The Apple iPhone already has this feature, Find My iPhone, which is part of iOS 7. Earlier this year, law enforcement agencies reported a drop in iPhone thefts after the remote kill switch was added.
In June, both Google and Microsoft announced plans to add theft deterrent tools to Android and Windows Phone, respectively. Google didn't spell out exactly how it intends to implement the kill switch. Microsoft committed to adding a kill switch to all devices running Windows Phone 8 and up. The Windows Phone kill switch will allow owners to: render the smartphone inoperable; remotely wipe personal data from the phone; prevent reactivation without the owner's permission; reverse the inoperability if the phone is recovered; and restore user data if the phone was erased.
[Lots of people will be buying new cell phones soon and will need to protect them from theft. Read Apple iPhone 6 Expected Sept. 9.]
The CTIA Wireless Association, which lobbies for the wireless industry in Washington, voluntarily set up a timeline for theft deterrent tools. All smartphones sold in July 2015 and after will include the tools, whether or not states such as California pass laws requiring them. Microsoft said its theft deterrent will be up and running by then. There's no word from Google on how or when Android will get its version of the remote kill switch, but it has nearly a year to get it up and working properly.
Until the remote kill switch is widely available, smartphone owners can take a number of steps to prevent their devices from walking away unexpectedly. For example, leave the phone in your pocket when walking around, use a passcode, set up the Find My Phone tool, and keep regular backups. If your device is stolen, be sure to report it.
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