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California bill to deter smartphone thefts advances; mandates built-in shut-off technology

State Sen. Mark Leno, D-San Francisco, urges lawmakers to approve his measure requiring electronics manufacturers to install a shut-off function in all smartphones manufactured and sold after July 2015, at the Capitol in Sacramento, Calif., Thursday May 8, 2014. The bill, SB962, which fell two votes short of passage when it was brought up two weeks ago, was approved by the Senate by a 26-8 vote. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli)

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State Sen. Mark Leno, D-San Francisco, urges lawmakers to approve his measure requiring electronics manufacturers to install a shut-off function in all smartphones manufactured and sold after July 2015, at the Capitol in Sacramento, Calif., Thursday May 8, 2014. The bill, SB962, which fell two votes short of passage when it was brought up two weeks ago, was approved by the Senate by a 26-8 vote. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli)

SACRAMENTO, Calif. - On a second attempt, California lawmakers advanced a bill Thursday that would require electronics manufacturers to install a shut-off function in all smartphones as a way to deter what one senator called a crime wave of thefts.

The legislation by Democratic Sen. Mark Leno requires companies to produce smartphones with technology that makes them inoperable if the owner loses possession.

It fell two votes short of passing the 40-member Senate two weeks ago, but Leno said amendments since then removed opposition from Apple Inc. and Microsoft Corp. It now applies to smartphones manufactured and sold after July 2015 and no longer includes tablets.

The wireless industry, however, opposes the measure as unnecessary.

"We have a crime wave sweeping our state," Leno, who represents San Francisco, said in urging support for his bill. He said two of three robberies in that city now include the theft of a smartphone, along with one of four robberies in Oakland.

"These crimes are up at double-digit rates," he said. "We're trying to keep our constituents safe on the streets."

It advanced as a San Francisco supervisor proposed legislation this week that would require smartphones and other mobile devices sold in the city to be equipped with a "kill switch" to render them inoperable if they're lost or stolen.

Similar legislation is being considered in New York, Illinois and Minnesota, and bills have been introduced in both houses of Congress.

Also Thursday, the Minnesota House of Representatives passed similar legislation that would require that all new smartphones and cellular-connected tablet computers sold in Minnesota after July 2015 have a kill switch anti-theft function. The Minnesota Senate passed a slightly different version last week.

In California, Democratic Sen. Alex Padilla noted recent reports that some smartphone owners are endangering themselves by using phones' tracking software to confront thieves and retrieve their phones.

The bill, SB962, passed the Senate 26-8 and now goes to the Assembly. Leno said more amendments will be considered there, including several offered by Apple this week.

Several lawmakers of both political parties expressed concern that fines of $500 to $2,500 for selling phones that don't include kill switches could unfairly penalize retailers. Democratic Sen. Lou Correa voted for the bill, but he and several Republicans argued that those who didn't manufacture the phones or install the software should not be held liable if the phones don't include the required kill switch.

"These are good citizens in the business world," said Correa, who represents Anaheim.

Leno said state law requires that fines could only be issues for "unlawful, unfair, fraudulent conduct," but agreed to consider adding specific language to the bill that fines could only be imposed if there is malicious intent.

Jamie Hastings, vice-president for external and state affairs at CTIA-The Wireless Association, said in a statement that the industry has already taken significant steps to protect consumers, including voluntarily including software on phones starting next year that allows users to remotely erase their data and prevent phones from being reactivated. The industry objects to having confusing state-by-state laws.

Leno said the voluntary action isn't enough because owners would have to find and activate the software. His bill requires that a kill switch be included as the default setting.

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