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Flipping on the Kill Switch: How the Telecom Industry Changed Its Tune on Smartphone Theft 

Wednesday, May 14 2014

Even last week, members of state Sen. Mark Leno's team thought the smartphone kill-switch bill was a longshot. The proposal to require all smartphone manufacturers to equip their devices with antitheft technology had foundered in the same chamber only one week prior. The telecom industry's main trade group, the Cellular Telecommunications Industry Association (CTIA), was aggressively lobbying to kill it; Apple, Samsung, and Verizon had all voiced their opposition. AT&T, one of the bill's most formidable opponents, even hosted a golf-themed schmooze-fest for Democratic legislators at Pebble Beach the previous weekend in the hopes of buying them out.

Then, over the course of about three days, the winds began to change. After persuading Leno's staff to make a couple minor technical changes in the bill's language, Apple and Microsoft withdrew their opposition on May 6. The anti-domestic violence group WEAVE Inc., which opposed the bill on grounds that kill-switches could be remotely activated by abusive partners, was unmasked by media investigations as a telecom shill. One of its board members, Donna Davis, works for AT&T, and another, David Townsend, runs a political action committee that benefits moderate Democrats. WEAVE also receives donations from Verizon.

But the real momentum came when law enforcement agencies began haranguing state politicians in droves, complaining about the escalation of smartphone theft. In San Francisco, so-called "Apple-picking" accounts for roughly two-thirds of all robberies, Leno said in a speech on the Senate floor. Most of them happen too fast for the cops to nail any suspects, and some end in violent confrontations. While the telecom industry harvests $30 billion annually from replacing lost or stolen phones, the police dispatched to stop these crimes remain powerless to help.

Once media outlets began publicizing these iniquities, the wealthiest tech companies in the world suddenly had a PR disaster on their hands. It wasn't the first time they'd fallen on the wrong side of history: A national push for distracted driving laws also put telecom companies in an awkward position, since many of them profit from the voice minutes used during commuter calls. Sprint initially opposed hands-free legislation, while Verizon supported it; the CTIA waffled on the issue. Only under massive pressure did cellphone companies decide to support the laws and recast themselves as public safety advocates. Some went whole-hog: AT&T spent millions of dollars to convert its "It Can Wait" slogan into a brand identity.

On May 8, Leno's kill-switch bill finally passed the state Senate. It was just one indication that the sentiments behind these antitheft devices may be mirroring the movement for distracted driving laws. And if the kill-switch bill becomes law in California — home to one of the largest smartphone markets in the country — it will likely go national. Then the onus will be on telecom companies to promote it.

About The Author

Rachel Swan

Rachel Swan

Rachel Swan was a staff writer at SF Weekly from 2013 to 2015. In previous lives she was a music editor, IP hack, and tutor of Cal athletes.


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