The smartphone industry pushed back hard Thursday on the notion that a single state like Minnesota could require phones sold within its borders to carry special “kill switch” technology that would render the phones worthless if stolen.
“State regulation will never keep pace with innovation in the global wireless ecosystem,” Jamie Hastings, CTIA vice president for external and state affairs, said to a legislative committee. “What state lawmakers mandate as a solution today may not be the solution consumers demand or need tomorrow. There is also no reason to limit consumer choice by mandating the use of any solution, whether it is a kill switch or other technology.”
Rep. Joe Atkins, DFL-Inver Grove Heights, wants all smartphones sold in Minnesota to carry technology that would disable them if stolen, allowing owners to wipe the data remotely and leaving the phone unfit for resale. So-called kill switch technology would also allow the owner to reactivate the phone with a passcode.
But representatives of CTIA-The Wireless Association, which represents the wireless industry, said Atkins’ bill “rests on a misunderstanding of wireless networks and devices.”
Hastings said cutting down on smartphone theft requires a “holistic approach,” like a national database launched in November that lists lost or stolen phones and can remotely deny service on carrier networks. Hastings, however, conceded that the list is not active in China, one of the world’s most active markets for boosted devices.
Atkins’ proposal has been lauded by law enforcement, namely University of Minnesota police, who have seen cellphone robberies jump 27 percent in five years and thieves become more brazen. UMP Chief Greg Hestness said a gun has been used in half the incidents on and around campus.
Conducting what he said was the first legislative kill switch hearing in the country, Atkins called his bill “a foot on the gas pedal” that will compel a reluctant industry to make their products less profitable for thieves. Nationally, one in five robberies now involve smartphones, at a cost of $30 billion each year.
Atkins said that the industry should adopt such technology voluntarily, and not wait until governments impose it on them.
“If all of them do what they should have some time ago, which is put in kill switches, then I don’t see any further need for legislation,” he said.
On the federal level, U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., has introduced similar legislation. California, New York and Illinois are looking at such requirements.
Concerns over hacking
Members of the House Labor, Workplace and Regulated Industries Committee were split on the issue, with some worried about the potential ramifications for hackers.
“I’m not a black helicopter kind of guy, but [we could] have folks that don’t like us that could hack into the system and suddenly render our mobile system virtually inoperable by deploying the kill switch,” said Rep. Mike Benson, R-Rochester. “I just worry about the potential ramifications of someone who doesn’t like us saying, ‘Well, I’m going to flip the switch’ and suddenly we have a national or regional problem.”
Others were concerned about the practicality of such a law, considering cellphones are not manufactured in the state and are regulated by national policy, not state by state.
“I kind of see this as someone asking auto dealers to put a kill switch on a car, and yet they don’t manufacture that car,” said Rep. Tim O’Driscoll, R-Sartell.
The bill was passed out of committee on a voice vote. Atkins conceded his bill isn’t perfect and will require changes down the line, but said it’s already had an effect. Atkins said once it was announced that his legislation would be heard in committee, wireless providers, including T-Mobile and Verizon, announced they were taking steps forward on kill switch legislation.
“All I know is as soon as the hearing got announced, action started being taken,” Atkins said. “They didn’t announce ‘kill switch lite’ or ‘kill switch soft.’ They announced that they’re pursuing a kill switch.”