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The new California law mandating a “kill switch” option on all smartphones made or sold in the state is intended to cut down on smartphone theft, by giving owners the option to remotely disable, or “kill,” their phones. The idea, of course, is that thieves will be less likely to steal phones which they know will soon be rendered useless.

But privacy and civil-liberty advocates worry the kill switch mandate could lead to more nefarious outcomes: instead of phone owners killing their phones to render them useless to thieves, hackers could kill the phones remotely, whether as a prank or, more ominously, to prevent an intended victim from calling 911. There's even greater concern that the police or other government-backed authority might use the kill switch to shut down protests, or prevent protesters from having any contact with the outside world.

The California bill, SB 962, says in part: “Any request by a government agency to interrupt communications service utilizing a technological solution required by this section is subject to Section 7908 of the Public Utilities Code.”

And what does that mean? Last June, shortly after SB 962 was first proposed, the Electronic Freedom Foundation (EFF) sent a letter opposing it on two grounds, which it described as “'lock in' and legitimizing a technical means.”

The EFF said that “Lock in describes when a particular technology is frozen in place due to a technological mandate, so other technologies — perhaps better technologies — have no chance of competing.” In other words, perhaps the mandate for this particular kill-switch phone-security measure might discourage the development of other, better security measures.

BART protests

But EFF's more serious concern is the “potential for abuse. We were especially concerned with giving government actors any more ability to shut off cell phones after wireless service was shut off during the 2011 BART protests.”

In 2011, after learning that people in the San Francisco area planned to protest the then-most-recent fatal police shooting, the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) police shut down underground cell phone service, intending to halt the protest. An attorney for the ACLU said at the time “All over the world, people are using mobile devices to protest oppressive regimes, and governments are shutting down cell phone towers and the Internet to stop them … It's outrageous that in San Francisco, BART is doing the same thing.”

In response to the shutdown, California passed Public Utilities Code § 7908 which, according to the EFF, “took great steps to prevent law enforcement from cutting off communications services, though it sunsets [expires] at the end of this decade. PUC § 7908, however, also legitimized a legal process for law enforcement to interrupt communications. SB 962, by mandating kill switches in every phone, would legitimize a technical means.”

EFF had hoped that, at the very least, if the kill switch mandate became law, it would explicitly limit this power to the phone's rightful owner. But this did not happen.

Hanni Fakhoury, an EFF attorney, discussed other scenarios in an interview with Wired, saying that the kill switch mandate “invites a lot of mischief. You can imagine a domestic violence situation or a stalking context where someone kills [a victim's] phone and prevents them from calling the police or reporting abuse. It will not be a surprise when you see it being used this way.”

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