New bill may kill phone theft, requires controversial phone "kill switch"

In attempts to combat rising smartphone theft across the nation, U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., is planning to introduce a bill requiring cellphone manufacturers to include a “kill switch” on their products.

The switch would allow smartphone owners to disable the device and erase all saved data if a phone gets stolen. Some police and industry experts say Klobuchar’s plan is a step in the right direction but that it doesn’t offer a complete fix for the increasing problem of phone theft.

John Elder, a public information officer with Minneapolis police, said cellphone theft is an issue in Minneapolis and around the University of Minnesota campus.

“We’ve seen this theft throughout the city,” he said, “but you do have more of a target-rich environment at the University.”

Elder said he and the Minneapolis Police Department support Klobuchar’s plan, but he said he doesn’t believe the kill switch requirement could completely stop cellphone theft.

Andrew Watson, a senior software developer at tech consulting firm the Nerdery, said mobile phone technology changes quickly and laws don’t always keep up with the industry.

“Just because we introduce this bill and say every device has a kill switch does not ultimately imply that your phone is safe,” he said. “I am always suspicious of any legislation that would be introduced in respect to a newer technology.”

Watson said there are already mobile apps that work like a kill switch and disable a stolen phone.

Klobuchar announced her plans at a press conference at Coffman Union on Tuesday. She plans to officially introduce the measure to Congress in a few weeks.

“I think there has to be a clear statement from the state as well from the Congress that this is a serious theft, and we need to have laws that are as sophisticated as those who are breaking them,” Klobuchar said at the press conference.

University President Eric Kaler wrote a letter to Sen. Klobuchar Jan. 21 to express his support of the bill.

“As you know, there has been an increase in off-campus thefts, primarily related to wireless devices, so your willingness to ensure our surrounding neighborhoods are safer is much appreciated,” he wrote.

But some, including a prominent trade association for the mobile phone industry, oppose kill switches altogether.

CTIA-The Wireless Association said in a press release that requiring a kill switch is risky because it could be used to maliciously disable a phone. This would prevent emergency calls and render the phone useless.

When asked at Tuesday’s press conference about the CTIA’s opposition to her plan, Klobuchar said, “If they [CTIA] have another way that they can technologically do this that’s working, then we are completely open to that.”

Co-Lab, a University entrepreneurial student group, recently started a petition supporting the kill switch plan.

Co-Lab President Jonathan Melgaard said the group is trying to spread the word about Klobuchar’s plan and get student support.

Psychology sophomore Paige Kessler said she thinks Klobuchar’s plan could be helpful in stopping phone theft.

Kessler had her phone stolen on Halloween. That night, she was walking with her boyfriend when a man approached and hit her in the face. The man then took her purse, which held her iPhone and keys.

Kessler said she didn’t attempt to track her stolen phone.

“I think [the kill switch plan] will make some sort of impact but not completely stop it,” she said.

What Klobuchar’s plan could do, computer science and engineering professor Joseph Konstan said, is help curtail the resale market for stolen phones.

“No one’s going to want to buy a phone if there’s the possibility of it being ‘killed,’” he said.

Rep. Joe Atkins, DFL-Inver Grove Heights, recently announced plans to introduce a similar kill switch bill in the Minnesota Legislature this session.

State Legislatures in New York and California are weighing similar measures, but no state currently has any kill switch laws in effect.

Kaitlyn Walek contributed to this report.