The Silver State is still basking in praise uttered last month by Tesla founder Elon Musk, who dubbed Nevada a “get things done” state. What a shame if we followed the business-friendly feats that persuaded Tesla to locate its battery plant here with legislation signaling the opposite attitude – – like requiring cellphones sold in Nevada to have remote kill capability.
The 2015 Nevada legislature will contemplate the kill switch mandate as a way to curb smartphone theft, according to a USA Today report.
Why would a state striving to reinvent itself as a technology haven insert itself into design standards for a globally-distributed tech product? Surely not because Nevada wants to emulate California, where a new kill switch law goes into effect next July.
Perhaps the advocates anticipate the reliable political boost that comes from supporting a crime bill, even when the resulting law is largely symbolic. In this case, symbolic because Apple, Google and Microsoft, which together command nearly 100 percent of the smartphone market, are already equipping their devices with remote anti-theft features, or preparing to do so in their next versions. For the tiny remainder of the market, mostly Blackberry users, the remote-kill feature has existed for years.
Beyond the politics, when governments manipulate the architecture of communication equipment, privacy and civil rights implications must be considered. State-mandated remote access provides an opening for abuse, as demonstrated by federal backdoor requirements that paved the way for spying and cybercrime.
The new California law says service to a phone can be halted only by “an authorized user.” But guess who is “authorized” besides the owner of the phone? Government at any level, right down to the dog catcher. The California statute incorporates a Public Utilities Commission Code section allowing a “government entity” – – broadly defined – – to get a court order requiring the provider to cut service for a “reasonably necessary” period.
"Governmental entity" means every local government, including a city, county, a transit, joint powers, special, or other district, the state, and every agency, department, commission, board, bureau, or other political subdivision of the state, or any authorized agent thereof.
Based on this language, a bus supervisor or a fire inspector could conceivably be an authorized agent.
The circumstances allowing a government-ordered shutdown include probable cause that the phone is being used for an unlawful purpose. Or that without intervention, there is jeopardy to public health, safety or welfare.
Civil libertarians are going on the record with warnings that peaceful protesters might be shut down, or that law enforcement might misuse the remote kill. And it’s hardly ridiculous to wonder what public welfare threats involving individual cellphones government might perceive.
Sections authorizing government use will be the consequential portion of any Nevada kill switch law, given the industry’s already clearly-stated intention to provide anti-theft technology. Observers of Nevada’s 2015 session should watch closely. Or, maybe Nevada’s stated goal of luring tech will prevail, and the legislature will spend its time on other matters.