Updated Sept. 4
Police and others will have the ability to shut off cell phones anytime they want under a bill signed into law by California Gov. Jerry Brown, privacy experts say.
The new law, Senate Bill (SB) 962, will require manufacturers to add a “kill switch” to cell phones that would let authorities turn the device off remotely. The stated goal of the new law is to allow owners of smartphones to “kill” their phone if it’s stolen, but privacy experts say the bill’s language could be twisted. Additional language was needed, they add.
Their other concern: This requirement will spread to other states.
“If you give law enforcement a tool that can be abused, you’ll have an instance of asking for forgiveness rather than permission,” Jack Laperruque, an expert on privacy at the Center for Democracy and Technology, told The Hill. Laperruque believes authorities could use the kill switch  to shut down communications during protests or incidents of civil unrest such as the riots in Ferguson, Missouri.
Many protesters use smartphones to coordinate their actions during demonstrations. Another example of abuse would be for police to prevent bystanders – such as citizen or mainstream journalists — from posting pictures or videos of police actions on the Internet. Cops could use the kill switch to stop people from alerting the media or their lawyers to police activity.
“This could effectively be co-opted to disrupt protests,” Laperruque said.
In Ferguson, police at times demanded that citizens and journalists turn off their cell phones. Under a bill such as SB 962, police would have had the power to do it by themselves, critics say.
Designed to Combat Smartphone Theft
Supporters of the law said critics simply are wrong. Brown signed it Aug. 25.
“This legislation addresses the violent, global epidemic of smartphone theft,” Maz Szabo, a spokesman for the San Francisco District Attorney’s office, said of SB 962. Szabo’s boss supports the bill and says it will remove incentives for smartphone theft.
Most smartphones  already have adequate anti-theft measures, including kill switch “apps” that can be activated by their owners, Hanni Fakhoury, a staff attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, told state legislators. EFF believes that makes SB 962 unnecessary.
Currently, smartphones can only be deactivated with the owner’s permission, Fakhoury noted.
“But SB 962 is not explicit about who can activate such a switch,” Fakhoury said. “And more critically, the solution will be available for others to exploit as well, including malicious actors or law enforcement.”
Phone purchasers will have the ability to deactivate the kill switch under SB 962, but they will have to specifically request it. Fakhoury believes that many owners will know nothing about the option and leave themselves vulnerable to the “kill switch.”
Bill Is In Governor’s Hands
Major smartphone manufacturers such as Apple and Microsoft initially opposed SB 962 but later dropped their opposition. Privacy advocates and some technology groups are actively encouraging Brown to veto it.
“This is the first bill of its kind in the country,” the bill’s sponsor, State Sen. Mark Leno (D-San Francisco), said. “I think as any number of issues here in California, when we act it becomes the de facto way business is done across the country. Minnesota passed a bill before ours, but it’s opt-in. That will not make it a universal deterrent.”
SB 962 will go into effect July 2015.