A “kill switch” is often referred to as an “emergency stop switch”, and is typically a safety mechanism used to shut something off in case of an emergency. When talking about machinery or even fuel pumps at your local gas station, a “kill switch” is a singular button or lever that will shut down everything. It doesn’t matter which pump is spewing out gasoline or which machine your co-worker may be stuck in, this one button will shut everything down — letting you sort out the specifics later.
It’s a great idea, the kill switch, when used properly. It brings with it significant and disruptive power. This power can be used appropriately, or it can be misused. It’s the misuse that we all need to worry about.
In the cases of a life-saving button, I don’t think any of us will argue against it. Unfortunately, the same button that can be used to potentially save a life can also be used to shut down operations. Someone erroneously pushing the shut-off switch at a gas station will impact not only everyone currently at the pump, but everyone who tries to use the pump for the next hour or two while a technician is dispatched, perhaps the fire marshall too, until the switch is finally reset. Ultimately, this is an inconvenience for customers, and a loss of business for the owner.
When applying the same logic to personal electronics, the uses are bit less obvious. Clearly we all want to be able to identify where our lost or stolen devices are, and remotely lock them, or even wipe them from a distance. Carriers, OEMs, and others are trying to warm us up to the idea, and are working on providing us with a “kill switch” so we can do exactly that.
That’s not all that it can be used for.
Back in Summer of 2013 we told you about a “kill switch” that Samsung was eyeing for inclusion in its devices. Earlier this month we told you about CTIA’s Smartphone Anti-Theft Voluntary Commitment, “a baseline anti-theft tool” which can be included in devices at no additional cost to the customer. So far, companies that have signed up include Apple, AT&T, Google, HTC, Huawei, Motorola, Microsoft, Nokia, Samsung, Sprint, T-Mobile, U.S. Cellular, and Verizon Wireless.
On the surface, it sounds great! One system through which any phone can be shut down and remotely wiped. You’ll never have to worry about the data on your lost phone being posted to the Internet, and smartphone thieves will be discouraged from stealing phones in the first place. It’s a win all around, right?
Back in 2010 we showed you a patent Apple had applied for which would let the company remotely shut down your device. This kill switch wasn’t intended to protect you from thieves. It was designed to protect Apple from you. It was specifically designed so Apple could disable your device if you had jailbroken it. Put another way, if you were using your phone in a manner other than that which the manufacturer approved, that manufacturer could disable your device.
That kill switch doesn’t sound so great now, does it.
What’s more, looking around the world today, we’ve recently had a coup in Egypt that overthrew the government. To prevent protesters from communicating with each other, and amateur journalists from sharing their stories and pictures with the outside world, the Egyptian government reportedly shut down Internet access and cellular networks.
Look at what’s been going on in Ukraine and Venezuela, and even closer to home on the Bundy Ranch in Nevada. All of these cases involve civilians rising up against their governments. Some claim their reasons are valid, others disagree. Regardless of which way will win out in the history books, without smartphones and data networks, the only story that will be told is the one from the victor’s standpoint. I, for one, want to hear what happened from the other side.
Building a universal kill switch into every smartphone that can be triggered through a standard mechanism across carriers and across devices from various manufacturers is the dream of any totalitarian government that wants to restrict free speech. But don’t forget the other side: a universal kill switch means a malicious hacker now has a very sweet target which can disable any cellphone they desire. Sure, it may only be an inconvenience that is resolved within several days or a few weeks, but imagine what can happen in that amount of time.
Carrier and OEM kill switches are a very bad idea and should have no place in your next smartphone or tablet.
Image credit: Ludovic Tristan