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Smartphone kill-switches become a reality as US Congress passes new bill

A Minnesota senator this week introduced a bill that would require cell phones to have kill switch technology.

The move is intended to cut down on gadget theft across the country. Specifically, the Smartphone Theft Prevention Act would require devices sold in the US to include free kill switch technology that would let owners remotely wipe personal data, render the phone inoperable to anyone but the owner, and prevent it from being activated by anyone but the person who owns it.

"Cell phone theft has become a big business for thieves looking to cash in on these devices and any valuable information they contain, costing consumers more than $30 billion (£17.9 billion) every year and endangering countless theft victims," bill sponsor Senator Amy Klobuchar said in a statement.

"This legislation will help eliminate the incentives for criminals to target smartphones by empowering victims to take steps to keep their information private, protect their identity and finances, and render the phone inoperable to the thieves."

Klobuchar said her bill has the support of the Secure Our Smartphones Initiative, which was spearheaded by New York State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman and San Francisco District Attorney George Gascón. Last year, the duo called on smartphone makers like Apple, Samsung, and Microsoft to make their devices more secure, and Apple's efforts with iOS 7 earned their praise.

Devices with iOS 7 include Activation Lock, which requires Apple ID log-in credentials if a phone is remotely wiped. So if someone swipes your iPhone on the subway and you activate remote wipe via Find My iPhone, the device is essentially a brick unless the thief also knows your Apple ID username and password.

As for Android, Gascón in November tweeted that wireless carriers rejected a mobile kill-switch proposal developed by Samsung, and suggested that the carriers are prioritising profits over safety, something he reiterated today.

The wireless industry has expressed concern about kill switch technology, arguing that it could fall into the wrong hands and possibly prevent people from calling 911 during an emergency.

Last week, a similar bill was introduced by California state Senator Mark Leno (D-San Francisco). It is sponsored by Gascón and would apply to any device sold after 1 January, 2015.

A gadget theft, meanwhile, made headlines today after two New York teenagers robbed a man of his iPhone in Brooklyn but were caught after taking a selfie that showed up on the victim's iCloud account.