Smartphone "Kill Switch": Senators Propose Federal Anti-Theft Bill

Rising theft of mobile devices, especially in major cities, spurred lawmakers to propose smartphone "kill switch" bills. Noah Berger / AP file

State lawmakers have pushed for a mandatory smartphone "kill switch" that would render a stolen device useless -- and Senate Democrats introduced a federal bill on Thursday, although much of the wireless industry is worried hackers will exploit the system.

The new "Smartphone Theft Protection Act" would mandate a feature on all new phones to let theft victims remotely wipe their personal data from the stolen device, render it inoperable and prevent thieves from reactivating it.

Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., is leading a group of senators who created the bill, and the move comes exactly one week after California lawmakers introduced similar legislation. The proposals are a response to a rising cwave of phone-related robberies and violence.

But most of the wireless industry has balked at the kill switch idea, saying any system is potentially hackable -- and if attackers manage to exploit it, they could "brick" unwitting victims' devices.

The kill switch push started last summer, when New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman and San Francisco District Attorney George Gascón kicked off a "Secure Our Smartphones" initiative. The goal is to make smartphones less valuable to thieves, who can make a tidy profit for relatively little effort by selling stolen devices on the black market. If thieves are forced to pay someone to reactivate a disabled phone, that could reduce their profit margin.

Lawmakers have cited studies that show lost and stolen cellphones cost consumers $30 billion in 2012. That same year, about half of all robberies in San Francisco involved a mobile device. Phone-theft victims in several cities have been killed.

But wireless carriers and trade group CTIA are staunchly against the kill switch bills, citing hacking concerns. Smartphone makers have been a bit more open to the idea: Gascón, the San Francisco District Attorney, said in November that Samsung was willing to add anti-theft software, but the carriers refused.

Apple added an optional "Activation Lock" anti-theft feature to its phones last year, but Gascón previously called it merely "a step in the right direction."