Law, Technology & Arts Blog

Can ‘Kill Switch’ Laws Put An End To Smartphone Thefts? Minnesota Enacts First-Of-Its-Kind Legislation

ImageBy Craig Henson

Despite industry opposition, Minnesota lawmakers passed a law that will soon require electronics manufacturers to install ‘kill switch’ antitheft technology in new smartphones, and more states appear ready to follow their lead.

On May 15, 2014, Minnesota Governor Mark Dayton signed the ‘kill switch’ bill into law. The bill, which is the first of its kind in the U.S., requires all smartphones sold or purchased in Minnesota and manufactured on or after July 15, 2015, to either come equipped with preloaded antitheft technology or else be capable of downloading such technology. The bill also establishes record keeping requirements for dealers acquiring used smartphones for resale, which include recording the seller’s name, address, and driver’s license number, as well as requiring the seller to sign a statement under penalty of perjury that the smartphone is not stolen and that the seller has the right to sell it. Minnesota lawmakers approved the legislation, in part, in response to a string of violent smartphone robberies on the University of Minnesota campus, hoping to thereby eliminate thieves’ incentives to steal the devices in the first place.

And Minnesota is not alone. Similar legislation is currently pending in New York and Illinois, as well as in both the U.S. House and Senate. Earlier this month, the California Senate approved a similar bill—just two weeks after narrowly rejecting a previous version of it—in an effort to curb the growing trend of smartphone robberies, many of which end violently. California legislators noted that smartphone thefts had increased in Los Angeles by 12% in 2012, and that in San Francisco thefts of mobile communications devices account for nearly two-thirds of all robberies. Lawmakers also expressed concern that victims sometimes use the GPS tracking function available on many smartphones to track down and confront thieves, a practice that has also lead to violent encounters.

However, the wireless industry has not been so supportive of ‘kill switch’ legislation. Industry representatives argue that the new laws are unnecessary because manufacturers have already pledged to voluntarily provide consumers with anti-theft features. The industry also argues that creating a confusing framework of complex state-by-state regulations would violate Congress’ exclusive power to regulate interstate commerce, and ultimately harm consumers by restraining innovation. Some have argued that ‘kill switch’ features will create a new problem by allowing hackers to remotely disable the owner’s device and erase its contents. But some suspect that the wireless industry’s true motive for resisting anti-theft measures can be found in the immense profits generated by loss insurance and device replacement services.

Whether Congress will ultimately step in and pass its own ‘kill switch’ legislation remains to be seen. If not, the possibility of conflicting state-by-state regulations could still come to fruition, although California’s bill would likely become a de facto national standard given the state’s size and substantial connection to the electronics industry. Even then, there still remains the possibility that these ‘kill switch’ laws will be challenged in court. The more salient question for consumers, though, is whether ‘kill switch’ laws can in fact curb the troubling trend in smartphone thefts, or whether they will create new problems of their own.

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