Critical CA Cellphone Bill Remains Largely Unknown

by Andrew Szeto on April 29, 2014

Senator Mark Leno’s smartphone “kill switch” bill failed to pass last week, but could still pass in May when SB 962 comes up for another vote. Yesterday, we suggested grassroots mobilization would help get the bill passed. I talked to phone users yesterday to test enthusiasm for the bill—and to find out if they’d even heard of it.

Speaking with residents across the city, I discovered that an overwhelming amount had never heard of this crucial bill, despite the benefits it would bring to reducing cell phone theft. SB 962 would require mobile phone makers like Apple and Samsung to install anti-theft software, specifically a “kill switch” that could, in the case of theft, remotely render the phone inoperable and erase the phone’s data.

Many city politicians and police departments have endorsed this legislation, citing the impact it would have at deterring phone thefts, which make up for more than 50% of all robberies in San Francisco. District Attorney George Gascon sponsored the bill along with Senator Leno.

I asked people across San Francisco if they had heard of the bill or even the idea of a “kill switch.” Nearly everyone said they did not know that such technology existed or that a state bill was being voted on to make it mandatory. Some recounted stories of the theft of their personal phones, and inquired more about the technology.

The cell phone lobby pushed hard against the passage of the vote last week, suggesting a stronger effort to inform people of the bill will be necessary to get it passed in May. With little public knowledge of the bill and the benefits of this technology, it is no surprise that the bill failed to pass.

Despite not knowing of the bill, many said they supported the kill-switch technology as a deterrent to theft and said they supported the passage of the bill.

However, some questioned the necessity of such a law, citing the existence of such technologies already. Apple iPhones already have a GPS tracking software, and one person told me he didn’t think it was necessary.

Though some phones are already equipped with anti-theft software, the bill would make it mandatory for phone companies to have it installed. Currently, users can opt-in to this software, requiring additional work and technological knowledge to do so. If the user does not turn on the software, it would make no difference to deterring theft. However, Leno’s bill’s requirement would make it so users would have to opt-out instead. Making anti-theft software a standard would reduce smartphone theft and possible violent crimes.

Only a few people, however, were skeptical of the bill. A large majority of folks I talked to said they supported the technology. But despite their support, none said they would make an effort to reach out to state senators about getting the bill to pass. Some said they would support the bill if there was mobilization around it, and if an online petition existed.

Even though people agreed with the bill, it was difficult to find people politically motivated to demand the passage of the bill. However, that is not to say that is impossible. As suggested yesterday, with a strong enough mobilization, the passage of this crucial anti-theft legislation can pass.

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