Rep. Atkins says U of M robberies inspired nation's first smartphone "kill switch" bill


Last summer, Rep. Joe Atkins (D-Inver Grove Heights) was hanging out with his son at the Big 10 Restaurant in Stadium Village when, without thinking twice about it, he set his smartphone down on a table.

"My oldest son said something like, 'You trying to get us killed?'" Atkins recalls. "He had a roommate, I believe, who had been robbed at knife-point for his smartphone a week before then. It happens all the time."

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Indeed, U of M officials say smartphones are involved in nearly two-thirds of on-campus robberies. The Federal Communication Commission estimates as many as 40 percent of robberies in American cities involve smartphones.

The conversation with his son, along with a call Atkins received from U of M Police Chief Chief Greg Hestness during which Hestness told him reducing on-campus smartphone thefts is a "top priority," inspired Atkins to start working last summer on the nation's first smartphone "kill switch" bill. It was signed into law by Gov. Mark Dayton yesterday.

"It's like being a ballplayer -- you do a bit of work in the offseason and it's amazing how much you can do during the actual season," Atkins says.

As a result, any smartphone sold or purchased new in Minnesota after July 1, 2015, must be equipped with technology designed to render the device inoperable in the event of theft or loss. Businesses aren't allowed to charge customers for the technology.

Atkins says "there was enormous opposition from the industry" to his bill, but very little within the Legislature until last month, when a consortium of major companies in the phone industry announced they'll voluntarily include "kill switch" technology in all phones by July 2015.  (That announcement came on the heels of Sen. Amy Klobuchar writing a stern letter to the five largest cellphone carriers that said, "I believe additional action to protect wireless consumers is necessary... The status quo is not acceptable.")

"The final vote ended up being a little more partisan because by the time we got the bill to the floor the industry had voluntarily agreed to elements in our bill, and so some, particularly on the Republican side, were like, 'We don't need to do a law anymore because we have voluntary commitment,'" Atkins says. "But my thought is, I have a 17-year-old who promises to be home by 11, but that doesn't mean I'm not going to still stay up and check."

Ultimately, Atkins says his bill is about reducing crime.

"If you're in a room of five or ten and ask how many have had a smartphone stolen, a hand will go up," he says. "It's an epidemic, and we've gotta figure out a way to address it. You take the value away from the phone because it can be disabled, you take away the incentive to steal in the first place."

-- Follow Aaron Rupar on Twitter at @atrupar. Got a tip? Drop him a line at [email protected]