California’s Cellphone ‘Kill Switch’ Law: What You Need to Know
California just passed a law — the first of its kind — that will require all cellphones sold in the state to have a “kill switch” enabling the owner to wipe and disable his or her phone remotely.
The law has been in the works for a while, passing through the California State Senate in May, and getting Gov. Jerry Brown’s signature on Monday. It requires any cellphone made after July 1, 2015 that’s sold in the state to have a feature — provided by the manufacturer — that enables remote wiping and disabling, conventionally known as “bricking.”
Intended to discourage theft, the new law could make stealing cellphones a thing of the past. Once the law comes into effect in 2015, it would theoretically render stolen phones unusable, so there would be no material incentive for thieves to target them. The federal government thinks its a good idea, too, and is considering taking the law national.
The law dovetails with an initiative from CTIA (the Wireless Association) called the Smartphone Anti-Theft Voluntary Commitment. All the relevant manufacturers, platform makers and wireless operators — including Apple, Google, Microsoft, HTC, LG, Samsung and all four major carriers — have committed to building better anti-theft tech into phones by July 2015
California’s new law has the potential to be a game-changer for cellphone theft, but it’s going to take time. Here’s the fine print on the cellphone “kill switch:”
Don’t cellphones already do this?
Some do, some don’t. Apple has offered iPhone owners the ability to track their cellphones via Find My iPhone since iOS 4 in 2010, and they could even perform a remote wipe — although that resulted in just an erased phone, not an inoperative one. It wasn’t until iOS 7 debuted in 2013 that Apple introduced an activation lock. Now, when the user performs a remote wipe, the iPhone requires the original owner’s code before it can be used by anyone else, which means iPhones with iOS 7 are already compliant with California’s new law.
Android is a different story. Since late last year, Android phone owners (version 2.3 “Gingerbread” or higher) can use Android Device Manager to locate an Android phone, and perform a remote wipe. However, Android phones don’t include the app out of the box, and it can only a perform factory reset, so the phone will still be usable — meaning Android phones today don’t comply with the new law.
However, the upcoming upgrade to the OS, Android L, addresses some of those issues. Android L will allow owners to remote-lock an Android phone, as well as lock the phone after a remote-wipe, which would bring Team Android into compliance with the new law.
Windows Phone currently allows users to find or remote-wipe their lost phone, but not to brick it. However, Microsoft committed to introducing those protections to Windows Phone users by the CTIA deadline of July 2015. It’ll be pre-installed on new devices, and available as an update to any handsets running Windows Phone 8.0 or later.
BlackBerry, of course, has offered remote-wipe and remote-disable protections for years, although if your device isn’t managed by your employer, you’ll need BlackBerry Protect for your device running BlackBerry OS 7 or earlier.
Why isn’t simply tracking a lost phone strong enough protection?
Because the police are busy. Generally, in the spectrum of crimes the police need to deal with, petty larceny of a person’s gadgets isn’t that high. There have been numerous reports of the victims of theft bringing phone-tracking evidence to police, only to have them shrug.
Once a phone has been stolen for more than a few minutes, the procedural requirements for getting it back start to compound, potentially involving serving subpoenas to ISPs and search warrants. Better to prevent the theft in the first place, which the law aims to do.
Aren’t there some Android apps that will disable your phone remotely?
Various apps are available on Google Play that can remote-wipe or remote-lock your phone. Android Lost, Lookout, Avast, Prey and Where’s My Droid will all let you wipe or lock your phone from afar, although some are paid apps, or include the feature as a in-app purchase.
Some of the apps will automatically take pictures of the thief with the phone’s front-facing camera, although their usefulness in recovering the phone is questionable. Most will also enable you to remotely make the phone blast a siren noise — even if it’s been silenced — which could be annoying enough for the thief to simply abandon it.
Where the law goes further than these solutions is that it specifies that once wiped remotely, the phone must be able to “withstand a hard reset”; this means the thief should not be able to reset the device, and return it to a usable state — no matter what action they take.
Does this law affect only manufacturers?
Not directly, but since California retailers will be fined up to $2,500 for every phone they sell that doesn’t include a remote-bricking feature, there’s no chance any legit wireless store is going to stock a phone without the feature — at least not one to which the law applies.
That last bit is of particular importance, and it’s why the effects of the law will take some time to implement. As worded, the law only applies to devices both manufactured after July 1 and sold in California after that date. In other words, stores won’t have to scrap all the Galaxy S5 phones that are still on the shelves on July 1. As long as the phone rolled out of the factory on June 30 or before, it’s safe to sell even if it doesn’t have the feature.
Is this something I have to enable myself?
Yes, although the law only requires that you have the option — so you’re not breaking the law if you don’t enable it. Of course, you’ll still need to log into iCloud, Google or whatever manufacturer service you’re using, to enable and use the remote-wiping and disabling feature. It’s not something you can just call your carrier to execute.
What about tablets, laptops and my smartwatch?
They’re not covered by the law, which applies only to phones. Guard them with your life.
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