OP-ED: City Needs Law Requiring Cell Phones to Be Equipped with a Safety Kill Switch

By Supervisor London Breed

A few months ago, an 18-year-old woman—a 5-foot, 110-pound young girl really—was walking to her friend’s house on Eddy Street. It was 4 o’clock in the afternoon, when in broad daylight, an unknown man punched her in the back of the neck and, in the words of the police report, “snatched [her cell] phone from [her] hand.”

The young woman was left shaken, with a bruised neck and the vague, improbable hope that her phone could be tracked by its serial number. Her attacker made off with a fully functional stolen iPhone, worth somewhere around $200 on the street—the latest entry in what has become a lucrative global black market of stolen phones.

According to the District Attorney’s office, in 2012 more than 50 percent of all robberies in San Francisco involved mobile communications devices. According to the Police Department, crime is down across a broad range of categories in San Francisco. Homicide was down 40 percent in 2013 compared to 2012. Rape dropped 47 percent.

But auto break-ins and robberies continue to climb, and people like this young woman on Eddy Street continue to be endangered, because thieves know that smart phones and tablets are easy to steal, easy to re-purpose, and easy to sell for hundreds of dollars.

Our California State Senator, Mark Leno, has introduced legislation to combat this problem. His bill, SB962, would require all smart phones sold in California to come equipped with a “kill switch,” software that renders the phone unusable when it has been stolen.

The technology already exists. It can be implemented. And its widespread adoption will reduce, if not eliminate, the value of stolen phones on the black market. It will take away the incentive for a thief to punch a young woman in the back of the neck and snatch her phone.

I commend Senator Leno for his work on this issue, and I support him 100 percent. But in Sacramento, he is facing serious opposition from a barrage of well-funded lobbyists. About two weeks ago, SB962 lost in the state Senate by two votes.

I know Senator Leno is working hard to get the votes he needs, and I know he has made some amendments to the legislation. I am told Apple has now dropped its opposition. Hopefully SB962 will pass in California.

I want to ensure San Francisco is doing everything possible to support it, but I also want to ensure we have a back-up plan.

(This week), I am requesting the City Attorney to draft legislation that will ban the sale of any new smart phone or tablet that is not equipped with a safety kill switch.

As with Senator Leno’s bill, there should be civil penalties for sellers who violate the law. And buyers should have the right to opt-out of the kill switch feature if they choose.

If some sellers or phone manufacturers choose not to sell in San Francisco, so be it. Those who do care about public safety will have a competitive advantage in a lucrative local market.

I want to thank Senator Leno again, and thank District Attorney George Gascon for his work on this issue. I also thank President Chiu for introducing a resolution supporting SB962, which we will vote on today.

SB962 will be likely be reconsidered by the Senate this Thursday. The best possible outcome is for it to become California law. It would probably preempt or obviate my local legislation. And let me be very clear, I would welcome that preemption.

I want cell phone safety to be statewide, ultimately nationwide. But in the meantime, in the interest of public safety, and in case SB962 does not pass, we should act here and now.

And I want the telecom industry to know they are not getting out of this one. They cannot lobby their way past public safety concerns.

Sacramento does not act, San Francisco will. And other cities will follow.

 

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