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California lawmakers pass smartphone 'kill switch' bill

If signed by the governor, the crime-deterrent switches will be mandatory on devices sold in the state after July 2015

All smartphones sold in California would have to come with a "kill switch" to render them inoperable if lost or stolen under a bill passed by the legislature on Monday, the latest effort to stem an epidemic of phone theft in the most populous U.S. state.

The bill would be the strongest effort yet by a U.S. state to fight smartphone theft, which accounts for more than half of all crimes in several of the state's large cities, including San Francisco and Oakland.

“Our goal is to swiftly take the wind out of the sails of thieves who have made the theft of smartphones one of the most prevalent street crimes in California’s biggest cities,” said Democratic Senator Mark Leno of San Francisco, the bill's author.

Lawmakers in several states, including New York, Illinois and Rhode Island are considering similar measures, as smartphone thefts continue to increase nationwide. Minnesota passed the nation's first kill-switch mandate in May, but Leno's bill goes further, requiring manufacturers to notify consumers that the technology is available on their phones, his office said.

The measure, which now goes to Democratic Governor Jerry Brown for his signature, requires all smartphones sold in California after July 2015 to come pre-equipped with technology allowing them to be shut down remotely in the event of theft.

The law also requires wireless companies to confirm the user name and password affiliated with any phone that has been deactivated before it can be used again, an effort Leno says will reduce or eliminate its value on the black market.

The California District Attorneys Association, California Police Chiefs Association and California Sheriffs Association supported the bill.

Even so, it failed on the Senate floor the first time it was introduced last spring, amid opposition from the wireless communications industry.

The bill was also opposed by the Electronic Frontier Foundation, which said the imposition of a 'kill switch' could quell innovation of similar software, pointing at features such as Find My iPhone. The organization was also concerned that it remained unclear who would be authorized to turn off a phone, since any party with access to the switch – including law enforcement and malicious actors – could exploit this option.

After Leno agreed to push back the bill's enforcement date to July from January 2015 and exempt tablet computers from its requirements, the measure won final approval from the Senate on Monday.

“I commend the legislature for standing up to the wireless industry and voting to protect the safety of their constituents,” said San Francisco District Attorney George Gascón, who backed the measure.

Al Jazeera and wire services

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