Tech and civil liberties groups are concerned about a California “kill switch” bill, which is poised to become law soon. They warn that the bill could be used to silence protestors like the ones in Ferguson, Missouri (above). Critics of the bill say it contains a dangerous section that could give law enforcement the power to shut down all cellphones during emergency situations, which could include public demonstrations. The bill’s intention is to curb cellphone theft by requiring all smartphones to come equipped with a feature that allows the users to remotely wipe their personal data and make the devices inoperable. It requires that the “kill switches” be turned on by default. The user can opt out afterwards. If signed by Gov. Jerry Brown, the bill will add to features companies already offer allowing phones to be disabled after theft.
The bill “is not explicit about who can activate such a switch,” the Electronic Frontier Foundation said in a letter opposing the bill, “…the solution will be available for others to exploit…including malicious actors or law enforcement.”
Concerns about the bill have been heightened given the demonstrations over a man who was killed by police this week in Ferguson where police at times demanded that protestors and journalists turn off phones and cameras (which can deter police misconduct), among other perceived disruptions, including rubber bullets and tear gas. Two journalists were arrested during the protests, which at times saw protestors and looters facing off. Jake Laperruque, doing a fellowship on privacy, surveillance and security at the Center for Democracy and Technology, said the California bill could create the potential for an abuse of power by law enforcement, “This could effectively be co-opted to disrupt protests. So much of what’s happening [in Ferguson] is relevant…” The bill’s supporters say it incorporates protections against such a police abuse including references to other California laws that require law enforcement to get a warrant to interrupt communications except in “extreme” cases.
In situations where there is “immediate danger of death or great bodily injury and there is insufficient time, with due diligence, to first obtain a court order,” law enforcement officials must quickly obtain retroactive court approval for activating the kill switch.
Max Szabo, a spokesman for the San Francisco District Attorney’s Office, said that critics were just like “ambulance [chasers]”, Not only does the bill forbid usage of such technology by government without a court order, these solutions will only be available on smartphones.” More than half of all California residents have a smartphone.
“If you give law enforcement a tool that can be abused, you’ll have an instance of asking for forgiveness rather than permission,” Laperruque said.
The bill “creates a pretty concerning risk considering history on the issue,” he said, recalling a controversial 2011 decision by San Francisco’s subway authority to interrupt cellphone service in the hope of clamping down on protests. BART subway system managers shut down cell service in four stations just prior to the start of anti-police demonstrations. They stated that the disruption was legal because of public safety concerns.
While the bill only applies to California, phone companies could start installing it in all smartphones in order to cut costs of producing two different phones.