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The right call: A ‘kill switch’ to deter smartphone theft

Do you own a smartphone? If so, you are a target for opportunistic thieves. Robberies and thefts involving smartphones are now the most common property crimes in America. The black market for these stolen devices has become so lucrative that even Colombian drug cartels now traffic in them.

According to a survey by Consumer Reports, 3.1 million Americans were victims of smartphone theft last year, nearly double the number in 2012. Los Angeles has experienced a more than 30 percent increase in smartphone theft since 2011. The experience can be traumatic, especially when violence is involved. And because people store all sorts of data on their phones, including passwords and credit card information, the ramifications of a theft can extend far beyond the loss of a costly phone and the fear that comes with being victimized.

But this kind of theft, unlike most crimes, has a remarkably simple solution. Cellphone manufacturers and wireless carriers could put an end to the growing number of smartphone thefts by installing and enabling a “kill switch” on all phones. This technology can render stolen devices inoperable on any network, anywhere in the world. Because all smartphones would be useless to anyone but their rightful owners, they would have no resale value, so thieves would have no incentive to steal them.

This technology exists, and it’s on millions of smartphones. Unfortunately, it’s been deployed in a way that requires smartphone owners to activate it themselves. This is problematic because most smartphone users don’t know their devices have the technology or how to turn it on. Moreover, thieves can’t tell which phones have the technology enabled and which do not, which leaves everyone vulnerable to victimization.

For nearly 18 months the industry has been pressured to voluntarily implement kill switch technology on all phones in a way that requires consumers to opt out rather than opt in. The idea would be that phones would come already set up with the technology activated. Consumers could opt out if they wanted to, but why would anyone?

The industry has taken some steps in the right direction, but no manufacturers or carriers have fully agreed to what we are urging. It doesn’t take much imagination to come up with a plausible reason for their reluctance. Wireless carriers and manufacturers make billions of dollars a year replacing stolen smartphones. They also make money selling theft insurance. Putting an end to smartphone thefts might not be good for business.

But profits shouldn’t be allowed to guide decisions that have life-or-death consequences. In failing to embrace existing technology to safeguard its products, the industry has put its customers in jeopardy. These companies have a responsibility to ensure their customers are not targeted as a result of buying their products.

We can’t wait for the industry to grow a conscience when people are getting hurt every day. A bill pending in Sacramento, SB 962 by state Sen. Mark Leno, would require smartphones sold in California not only to have this technology but to have it turned on as the default mode when the phone is purchased. This week, the state Senate will consider the legislation, and you should let your representatives in Sacramento know how you feel on the issue.

Technology has a proven role in preventing crime. When auto theft was on the rise in the 1990s, manufacturers created anti-theft technology that greatly reduced vehicle thefts nationwide. Law enforcement worked hand in hand with manufacturers to harness a technological solution then, preventing crime and victimization. We urge the wireless industry to join us now so we can repeat our previous success and protect wireless consumers everywhere.

Charlie Beck is chief of the Los Angeles Police Department, and George Gascon is district attorney of San Francisco. They wrote this for the Los Angeles Times.

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