back to article Proposed California law demands anti-theft 'kill switch' in all smartphones

California may soon become the first US state to require mobile phone makers to include a feature that can remotely disable their handsets in the event they are stolen. A new law proposed by California state Senator Mark Leno and San Francisco District Attorney George Gascón would require all smartphones sold in the state to …


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  1. Jordan Davenport

    If this is going to be regulated...

    Wouldn't it be better just to mandate an operator blacklist of IMEI numbers for stolen devices rather than being OS-dependent? This doesn't prevent selling to other jurisdictions, I'm aware, but if such a blacklist were maintained nationally, that would stop a lot of motivation.

    1. Khaptain

      Re: If this is going to be regulated...

      Alternatively, use the Israeli method, a little bit of strategic C4 + remote detonation.... Garaunteed that the thief will never steal another anything....

    2. Chad H.

      Re: If this is going to be regulated...

      Indeed... That would make sense, and only be what everyone else did years ago.

    3. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: If this is going to be regulated...

      Kill switch, maybe to be used against the person using in the seat next to me?

      Why did they ever allow it to be used on aircraft.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: If this is going to be regulated...

        "Why did they ever allow it to be used on aircraft."



        No court would convict me.

        Me: "Yer honour, they were standing using the phone on a plane whilst the 'Fasten Seatbelt' sign was still on, and they never paid attention to the safety briefing."

        Everyone else from the plane: "We agree with that statement."

        Judge: "Very well, case dismissed. And I sentence the plaintive to have 'I'm a twat' tattooed on their forehead."

      2. Ty Cobb

        Re: Why did they ever allow it to be used on aircraf

        I'll tell you why it should be allowed. Flight 93.

    4. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: If this is going to be regulated...

      Just download an App on you Android phone and you have a 25% chance of bricking it with malware.

      As for Apple, they just switch you off if you p@ss them off.

      Blackberry? Server mishap, but who has one anyway.

      Win Phone? Deserves to be stolen.

      1. h4rm0ny

        Re: If this is going to be regulated...

        >"Win Phone? Deserves to be stolen"

        You're saying its more deserving to be stolen than iPhones and Android devices, i.e. it's more appealing? You can't even construct a proper troll, can you?

        1. Intractable Potsherd

          Re: If this is going to be regulated... @h4rm0ny

          Priceless! Thanks for bringing a smile to my face :-)

          Have a festive tipple on me (it doesn't have to beer) ---------->

    5. localzuk Silver badge

      Re: If this is going to be regulated...

      It doesn't stop motivation. The UK has a fairly high phone theft rate, and we have an IMEI blocking system in place. The phones just get shipped overseas.

      The phones need bricking if stolen.

    6. c:\boot.ini

      Re: If this is going to be regulated...

      This is already the case, however, the crooks flash a new IMEI onto the device ... you are 15 years too late, mate. And, this only works per country ... and stupid crooks sell them in Africa ... The fun starts when the new owner comes back with the hw and the IMEI has not been flashed.

      What we need is an international blacklist, but since they can flash the IMEI, it is useless against the savvy.

    7. N13L5

      Re: If this is going to be regulated...

      Of course, you are 100% correct.

      But, the kill switch isn't really meant against theft, that is just a pretense. The hijacked U.S. government simply wants to be able to shut down your phone whenever it suits them.

  2. erikj

    So now the thief has to disable me least long enough to preserve the resale value of my phone until it's fenced?

  3. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    I cannot see how such a "kill switch" could ever be abused by a socialist/dictator president. No sir.

    /this is seriously a bad idea, 1984.

    1. Will Godfrey Silver badge
      Black Helicopters

      You're now on that 'special' list.

    2. Graham Marsden
      Big Brother


      "abused by a socialist/dictator president"?

      Because no right-wing capitalist dictator president would dream of abusing such a kill switch?

    3. Don Jefe

      Right-wing quasi-military nutjobs posing as socialist dictators would be far more likely to abuse this, if they had a reason to. That's the great thing about being a dictator you know, you don't need to abuse software when you can just abuse the peolple who run the networks. It's not only easier that way, but it adds to the aura of strength/lunacy that dictators like to maintain.

  4. banjomike

    What happened last time?

    I seem to remember that this was going to happen years ago, report the phone stolen and 'they' kill it.

  5. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward


    I do not want a self destruct switch in my phone!

    1. Don Jefe

      Re: DO NOT WANT

      Why not? Unless you've built your own network your phone works by the will of the carrier, who operates at the will of pretty much anybody, apparently. So you're not putting your connectivity at risk, and you're possibly less likely to robbed for your phone. Not really seeing the problem.

      1. Old Handle

        Re: DO NOT WANT

        Well it depends on how it works I suppose. If it's no different than being blocked by the carrier than

        A) Meh, OK I guess. and

        B) WTF is the point?

        But if the phone will be banned form all networks and/or have other functionality disabled, than I absolutely do no want this.

        1. Don Jefe

          Re: DO NOT WANT

          What about your credit cards? What about your bank accounts in general? Both of those things have kill switch functionality that's 100% out of your control.

  6. chipxtreme

    Don't they blacklist the IMEI over in America like they do here in the UK?

    1. stucs201

      IMEI blacklisting was a lot more useful when phones were mostly telephones and needed a network to do anything useful. Now they're mostly touchscreen pocket computers that happen to be able to make a telephone call blocking them from the network doesn't make them as useless as it used to - they're still effectively mini tablets, which is probably enough to have some resale value.

      1. Jordan Davenport

        This is quite true, and I hadn't considered that earlier. That said, it still puts the onus on whoever buys the device. They'll just about have to know it's stolen so they shouldn't ever try using it as a phone.

        1. c:\boot.ini

  7. Anonymous Coward

    Sounds like a great idea...

    Until some malicious tool finds a way to access the kill switch and phones start getting bricked for various faux-humorous or greedy purposes.

    1. silent_count

      Re: Sounds like a great idea...

      "Until some malicious tool finds a way to... “

      "Please send X bitcoins to Y or 'your precious' becomes 'your doorstop'. "

      Oh yes, people would pay-up.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: Sounds like a great idea...

        I would think you could possibly do that already, depending on the phone.

        Use a temproot exploit, then wipe out the boot partition or some other significant piece.

  8. Alan Denman

    Political sponsorship at its worst?

    Protectionist idiots and maybe NSA sponsored.

    The disguise is now wearing far too thin.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      @ Alan Denman

      What a stupid comment. What's far too thin is your understanding of the world.

      1. Intractable Potsherd

        Re: @ Alan Denman

        Would you care to explain what exactly is wrong with Alan Denman's comment, Senator Leno or District Attorney Gascón, whichever one you are?

        This is a state mandated addition to the assumption that stuff that a person has bought doesn't actually belong to them at all. No choice is given as to whether this pointless thing will be on the phone or not. Can you think of any other consumer good that has government-mandated anti-theft measures? Even cars don't have them!

        By all means, let people have the choice, but ask insurance companies to charge less if there is a certain level of security on the phone, or even run a public information campaign, but this is a dangerous thing to compulsorily add to a device.

        1. Don Jefe

          Re: @ Alan Denman

          It's stupid because State actors don't need this kind of thing to interfere with your phone. Even if the NSA hadn't gone completely insane, killing mobile, or home, phones is an authorized law enforcement practice that's been challenged many times in court and never been overruled. They've got far easier ways of shutting you down.

          I'm not sure what you think all those numbers on your car are for, but verification of ownership is their primary purpose. Auto makers didn't even include vehicle specific info in the VIN until the 50's. That title thing you've got for your cars? All are anti-theft mechanisms and most nicer cars come with remote disablement features as a standard option. Granted, those systems aren't government mandated, but law enforcement has access to them if they want it.

        2. Nicole D.

          Can you think of any other consumer good Re: @ Alan Denman

          Can you think of any other consumer good that is light weight, palm sized, and that may well -- in all likelihood -- holds the keys to your identity and economic life?

          Remind me, if my phone is lost or stolen, why am I not supposed to want to be able to call my carrier and have them brick the thing? I call my credit card company to void lost cards. In terms of functional desirability, how does this differ? Because it would be a guvmint mandate? Right. It's almost 2014, your 20th century talking points are past their expiration date.

          The ability to brick a phone that is not within arm's distance would be a feature and selling point, which pretty much does away with any objections based on profits that isn't rooted in (as the article says) more thefts = more sales. Nice. Almost Googlerian in its cold logic.

          As for "their" ability to do this, this isn't my area of expertise, but it seems to me if they're able to download to your phone at their leisure, without your knowledge or direct consent at the time, it should be easy enough for them to locate and zap your phone of all value once you give them your mother's maiden name.

          1. Charles 9 Silver badge

            Re: Can you think of any other consumer good @ Alan Denman

            Yes, my WALLET. And since it's UNpowered, there's sod all that can be done to "killswitch" a wallet.

            Besides, what's to stop thieves from carrying faraday bags to block any killswitch signals? Then they can switch it to airplane mode through the bag or take it to a faraday cage to download all the stuff at their leisure, flash a new firmware that doesn't respond to the killswitch (and probably includes malware backdoors so they can double-dip), and THEN fence it, confident it won't brick.

          2. JC 2

            Re: Can you think of any other consumer good @ Alan Denman

            It's certainly reasonable for you to want the feature. It may even be a feature that many people want. What is NOT reasonable is for government to dictate that it be required rather than letting the industry offer it as a feature then customers can decide if that is what they want.

            The arrogance of Gascon is appalling, dictating what the industry must do and then acting as though they are "dragging their feet" not doing something they would have if they wanted to. Then he goes so far as to state HIS patience is running out? He seems to be mistaken about his place in the world, that being elected to an office does not make him a god.

            Don't worry though, this kind of tech will be applied to vehicles as well as phones. Hacker-robbers will disable your vehicle, brick your phone, then you'll be sitting there defenseless. It was nice to know you before you suddenly disappeared off the face of the earth. At least they didn't have a chance to sell your phone, right?

  9. Hud Dunlap

    Another stupid Calfornia Idea

    There was crime before there was smartphones. If it is not worthwhile to steal a phone they will steal something else.

    1. Don Jefe

      Re: Another stupid Calfornia Idea

      I'm not sure you're thinking that through all the way...

      But anyway, this isn't a California idea, at all. California, San Francisco in particular, has been under heavy pressure from the Chief of Police here in DC for years. She goes out there several times a year, as well as sending emissaries constantly to apply pressure on mandating the 'kill switch'. It's a personal crusade of hers and she plays it big. There are posters in the Metro and she's on the radio talking about her initiatives and work here and in California.

      California isn't as wacky as everyone thinks, they're the #1 target of every sort of lobbying effort imaginable, from places all over the country, and some of them get traction. If you can get California to pass a product law then the chances of it becoming the default increase exponentially. California is the 12th largest economy on Earth and everybody will bend to California's will, and it ends up being cheaper to make all their products compliant instead of a California only model.

    2. sam bo

      Re: Another stupid Calfornia Idea

      Exactly, I suggest we also have electronically trackable cash as well as smartphones - I can see that solving a lot of social problems. Think of the power - banks could remotely reduce you to penury, Oh wait, they can do that now.

    3. Curtis

      Re: Another stupid Calfornia Idea

      The phones aren't necessarily stolen to resell... they're stolen to keep the victim from calling the cops too fast. A kill switch will just result in a bunch of electronic waste.

      Of course, telling a California Lawmaker anything is like talking to a brick wall.

  10. bigtimehustler

    It doesn't prevent anything, people will just steal a phone and then install a different OS on it. Cyanogenmod even release a helper app to do this on the play store these days. Completely pointless legislation, the best you can hope for when your phones stolen is wiping your data.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Pretty sure Android doesn't implement a kill switch at all, so I'm not sure what this "helper app" you're talking about has to do with this story. There was a story last month about carriers not wanting Samsung to implement a kill switch on its phones, which implies they don't have one now.

      That's the nice thing about Apple's control freakery, it prevents carrier control freakery!

  11. bigtimehustler

    And also, keep in mind what the police and the government really care about, they are bothered about crime figures, not actual crimes! They hate a large amount of the same crime category going on, makes them look they are not doing anything. If however the crime is spread out more, it looks far better on the figures released.They don't actually care about the crime, just the reporting figures.

    1. Don Jefe

      Unfortunately, there's a lot of truth in what you're saying. Managing by spreadsheet has become the norm in lots of places. It's sad.

      But in this case there's a bit of difference, I talk about in a post above, in that the DC police chief has made national mobile kill switch legislation a personal crusade of hers. She really, really, really wants the legislation. I'm sure her goal is gaining political capital for her next step up the chain, but phone theft is an extra bad problem in here in DC. It's often senselessly violent and the worst part of this city is that the guy on your left is quite likely to be a Senator/other 'important person' and the guy on your right be a geeked out crackhead who is absolutely going to steal something. The chief would prefer the Senator not be robbed, but, as you say, she doesn't care much about the rest of us.

  12. MrDamage Silver badge

    Comodo Mobile Security

    Comodo allows a whole range of things to be done to a phone that has been stolen.

    Remote locate, SMS alert if the SIM is changed, sound a ear piercing alarm even in silent mode, remote lock, remote wipe, and even remote camera capture of the person who steals/buys the phone.

  13. Old Handle


    I think it's wrong to force this on people, but on the other hand I do see why some would find it appealing. So I've devised a strategy inspired by nature which offers the best of both and gives end users a choice.

    Instead of requiring all phones to have this, simply mandate that phones with this feature must be painted with orange and purple stripes, and ban other phones from using that pattern. Then just like a predator who becomes ill after eating a brightly colored poisonous newt, thieves will learn that it's no use stealing the stripy phones. Consumers will then be able to decide for themselves whether thieves or malicious remote bricking is the more serious threat and purchase accordingly.

    1. 's water music

      Re: Compromise

      YA a business which produces aftermarket phone cases in purple and orange AICMFP!

  14. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    What happens of the carriers decide to see who blinks first? If the carriers decide to pull all smartphones in California, then the public will be demanding the law be changed. If there is a SIM card, the people have a choice to get one from out of state.

    Software can be bypassed as the kill switch requires a mobile network to operate. The thief steals the phone, turns it off and then they can take their stolen phone, use a jammer, flash the phone and voila, a phone without the kill switch. With the IMEI able to be changed through various means, how will the network cope with it. Even if they sent a kill signal it won't be for that phone. No matter how secure something is, it will be broken. The carriers have the OS customized, so with various software releases available there is bound to be an official OS without the kill switch software available.

    If the kill switch was hacked and a vast amount of phones were bricked, the government wouldn't be responsible but the carriers that had no say in it.

    The issue the government is not trying to tackle is that of the criminals. How many thieves probably get a slap on the wrist or the punishment is too light. The rewards outweighs the risk so the criminals will continue this until that is not the case.

    1. Don Jefe

      California has one of the largest economies on Earth and is one of the worlds 'trend setting' markets. If your product gets traction there it'll get traction pretty much anywhere on the planet. Nobody in consumer electronics is going to to pull their products out of there and jeopardize an influential market with a GDP and disposable income factor higher than Canada, France or Italy.

      I don't like California, I don't find it very attractive, especially the cities, but it's key to any large scale consumer product's success here in the States and abroad. For better or worse, you've got to have a strong presence there if you want to play in the US consumer market.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        California is 13th on the list if you go by per capita.

        California doesn't pave the way as you think it does. For the longest time there were 49-state vehicles and then CARB complaint vehicles. Some vehicles were not available in California when they were available in the rest of the country. Texas is gaining ground on California and if you look at the difference year over year, you will see that Texas is gaining on California. Other states are gaining but Texas is the closest. NY is third on the list but they are not gaining; the year over year difference is not has high as what California has.

  15. Dick Emery


    What they really need to do is use the tracking facilities of these phones and actually do their job to trace them to the crooks. But no. that's more like actual police work and far too costly and time consuming for them right? Ever reported your phone stolen? Have the police ever done anything to try and trace it? I rest my case.

    1. Charles 9 Silver badge

      Re: Duuh!

      Because you can defeat the tracking the same way you can defeat the killswitch: with a faraday bag. Inside, it's invisible to the network, and as long as it's invisible to the network, there's no way they can get to the phone.

  16. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward


    How about a screen buster, which physically burns out the driver IC behind the panel?

    A simple one shot resistor fuse would do, built into the package.

    Also very obvious as it would also stop the phone turning on at all, and as the screen is the most expensive part the phone would then be worthless.

    Bonus, also burn out any inserted microSD and SIM with a voltage pulse ;-)

    Added bonus, have the CPU run in HCF mode so the battery rapidly drains, but also broadcasting the phone's location on an intenationally agreed band.

    1. Don Jefe

      Re: Fix

      Nearly 25% of phones reported stolen or lost are recovered within 12 hours of the initial report. You're talking about killing off an awful lot of phones whose biggest sin was being too thin and falling down the back of a couch or between car seats of being put in the refrigerator by mistake or left in a jacket you forgot at work.

  17. OldQuote

    Bricked trying to organize a protest...

    the crowd sourced gatherings that we have seen in the mid-east, just might have to resort to 60's style communications to get a decent protest into action. And no one will be able to video it... when the authorities brick all the phones in the area !!

    Try making the phone into a snitch... it takes photos and sends them out with GPS markers. ps. and the GPS needs to resolve vertical height. my daughter tracked her phone to a 3 story apt building, but could not resolve which floor it was on. When the law knocked on the door, it went dead. tossed in a metal box. No evidence, no arrest, no phone.

    1. Don Jefe

      Re: Bricked trying to organize a protest...

      Law enforcement in the US doesn't show much interest in recovering stolen phones. In large part because States don't prosecute their theft as a felony, regardless of the phones value. They'll prosecute the robbery/mugging or the breaking and entering/unauthorized access to private property if they can, but unless they actually catch you selling it, the actual phone might get you petty theft or unlawful possession. Even then they often successfully argue they'd just found the phone and hadn't reported it, most States give you 48 hours to report found goods. Unless you can positively ID the person for robbing you, it is hard to prove they didn't just find the phone.

      Also, giving law enforcement search and seizure authority based in consumer GPS data is a stunningly bad idea, especially in high density areas. Although fairly accurate, their official tolerances aren't right enough to serve as legal data. Although the device seems to be in Apt. 313, it could be anywhere within 50' and in six or seven different residences. The police can't be coming in my home because my sketchy neighbor stole your daughters phone.

      Even in targeted GPS tracking operations where they use higher tolerance devices, the evidence by itself usually isn't admissible as stand alone evidence. It is used as corroborating evidence of a crime they've got other evidence for.

      I'm not sure what the solution to phone theft is, but giving the police more power isn't the right answer.

    2. Charles 9 Silver badge

      Re: Bricked trying to organize a protest...

      "the crowd sourced gatherings that we have seen in the mid-east, just might have to resort to 60's style communications to get a decent protest into action. And no one will be able to video it... when the authorities brick all the phones in the area !!"

      You forget. THEY control the NETWORK. The most common tactic they use in such a case is blackouts. What's to say they also don't OTA updates with spyware built into them?

  18. Adam 1

    I doubt that bargain bin phones are really the issue these days. By the time your IMEA is blocked you have a toy that can't connect to the mobile network . Given the specs of landfill android and winphone that market will only shrink.

    A more likely scenario is that your phone is still stolen, pulled apart and then sold as a refurbished battery, screen and ųSD card.

  19. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward


    Its not being implemented pruely to protect the steady income and premiums of the insuarance companies !

    Remember, this is the USA. How else will the insurance companies survive ?

    The kill switch kills the insurance income. Simplz.

  20. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Please steal my phone

    You are one text away from me knowing where it is, listening to you, taking snaps with the camera, reading your texts etc (even if you change the sim).

    Once I've finished with you, then I'll call the police.

    I might take some time....

  21. Jess--

    simple idea

    why not make it so if you change the sim (or the phone cannot connect to it's home network for > 24 hours) lock the phone down until a password (hard coded) is entered.

    the password would be supplied to the customer on paperwork when they purchased the handset.

    1. Steve the Cynic

      Re: simplistic idea

      Hmm. Nothing could go wrong here, no, not at all.

      I couldn't go abroad for a couple of weeks and forget the password, could I?

    2. Intractable Potsherd

      Re: simple idea

      Where I live, my mobile is often unable to connect to its home network for more than 24 hours. Thanks for the suggestion, but no thanks. I'm perfectly capable of putting the security measures I want on my phone, thanks.

    3. Don Jefe

      Re: simple idea

      A code for a SIM change is actually a good idea. It's no different than requiring an activation code when you install/upgrade software on a PC.

  22. A J Stiles

    Except it doesn't deter theft

    You are all missing the point, because you are thinking of mobile phone theft as an acquisitive crime when the vast majority of mobile thefts are deprivatory in nature. Mobile phones are practically giveaway items anyway. When some thieving toerag steals your mobile phone it is not because he wants it for himself, but so that you do not have it. Usually, the aim of taking it is simply to slow you down reporting the robbery, to give them time to empty your bank accounts using the PINs forced out of you at knifepoint.

    This is why the ability to disable a mobile phone remotely does almost nothing to deter theft in real life. A stolen mobile phone doesn't have to be of any use to anyone -- it's enough, from the thief's point of view, for it not to be of any use to you.

    1. Charles 9 Silver badge

      Re: Except it doesn't deter theft

      Then explain the people who rob, mug, even KILL...JUST for the phone. Taking the phone to prevent them calling 911 because you've robbed everything else on them is one thing, but mugging them and taking JUST the phone smacks of a targeted mugging.

  23. Mag07

    Stop faffing around with the criminals - back to the old ways and off with them hands for theft - only have to do a few for the message to spread. It's ridiculous to have to dance around an issue like that and enforce changes with financial implications for everyone but the thief.

    Oh, and a life-time ban for applying for any sort if disability benefits related to the punishment.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Probably because if it came to that, crooks would refuse to be taken alive, upping the violence level. Also, don't forget, America can't chop off hands due to the 8th Amendment, and even if violence escalates, capital punishment is not allowed in Europe.

      Besides, psychological studies point to punishment not being an effective deterrent: the criminal mind typically believing in getting away with it and not being punished at all, meaning they don't look that far ahead.

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