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Proposed federal law would require smartphone 'kill switches'

Screenshot of Apple's Activation Lock feature. | Source: Apple

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Legislation introduced by a cadre of U.S. senators on Thursday looks to mandate the inclusion of a remote "kill switch" for all smartphones sold in America.

According to a brief overview of the Smartphone Theft Prevention Act as seen on U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar's (D-MN) website, the proposed bill calls for smartphones to be equipped with technology that can wipe user data and render the device inoperable when stolen.

Sen. Klobuchar is accompanied by Barbara Mikulski (D-MD), Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) and Mazie Hirono (D-HI) in introducing the legislation.

As noted by Re/Code, the legislation is similar to a California proposal that seeks the deployment of kill switch technology in a wide range of devices. It appears the federal version is more narrow, however, as it primarily aims to secure cellular-enabled devices like smartphones.

The publication pointed to a statement from wireless industry coalition CTIA's vice president of government affairs Jot Carpenter, who disagrees with the Senate's proposed solution.

"While Senator Klobuchar and CTIA are of like mind when it comes to wanting to prevent the theft of wireless devices, we clearly disagree on how to accomplish that goal," Carpenter said. "Rather than impose technology mandates, a better approach would be to enact Senator Schumer's legislation to criminalize tampering with mobile device identifiers. This would build on the industry's efforts to create the stolen device databases, give law enforcement another tool to combat criminal behavior, and leave carriers, manufacturers, and software developers free to create new, innovative loss and theft prevention tools for consumers who want them."

Apple currently has such a system built into iOS with Find My iPhone, an app and corresponding iCloud-based service that can remotely track, lock, disable and wipe an iPhone, iPad or iPod touch. With iOS 7, Find My iPhone was updated to include password protection and Activation Lock, the latter of which is an opt-in feature that provides users an added layer of security against stolen phones.

When Activation Lock is switched on, nefarious users cannot turn off Find My iPhone, sign out of iCloud or erase and reactivate a given device without first entering the linked Apple ID and password. The idea is that a rendered-useless device ups the chances of recovery.

If passed into law, the Smartphone Theft Prevention Act would require all phones sold in the U.S. to include kill switch type technology free of charge. The burden would apparently fall on carriers to provide the solution, though how such a system would be deployed across a broad spectrum of devices was left unsaid.