What is a computer kill switch – and what does it mean to you?

Kindle Kill Switch

Over the past few years there have been some controversies relating to smart phones, tablets, e-readers and what is called a kill switch.  A kill switch, simply explained, is the ability to remove or modify something from an electronic device of some kind.

You might recall that in 2009 Amazon erased, of all things, Orwell’s 1984 and Animal Farm from Kindle devices. Amazon erased the books due to a copyright violation. Unsurprisingly, customers were unhappy that Amazon had the ability and in fact chose to delete content from their devices. Amazon acknowledged that the way in which it handled the situation was a mistake, but we all learned just how much power Amazon had over its devices at that point.

Phones and Tablets

Amazon is not unique in this ability or action, though perhaps in the purpose. Google made it clear to its app developers that it has the ability to remotely remove apps from phones and tablets.  Google had to use this ability in 2011 when it discovered a number of malicious apps in its market. These apps had the potential to cause serious problems to phone and tablet owners. Google actively notified its users when it removed the apps. Apple has the same ability with iPhones and iPads.

Kill Switch Coming to Computers

Tech blogs began to announce that Windows 8 would have a kill switch late in 2011 and early in 2012. Microsoft is constantly battling piracy of its software, so folks were a bit suspicious when Microsoft stated that the kill switch would only be used in the application market that is being made available in Windows 8.  In other words, Microsoft was suggesting it would only use its kill switch the same way Amazon and Google have used theirs. Microsoft even said it was limited to removing this kind of software, and not regular software loaded on the computer through different means (non-app store web, cds, usb driver.)

Here’s the problem. PCs have never had kill switches before. Microsoft says it will only use the switch for one purpose, but what stops it from using it for another? It has the right to use it with its own “discretion.” So what prevents Microsoft from deleting applications it doesn’t believe were properly purchased by a computer’s owner? What if Microsoft makes a mistake?  And what if Microsoft decides to give its kill switch greater capability than just applications from its store? Any of these are realistic scenarios to my mind. But you know what, this isn’t really my biggest concern.

A Security Nightmare?

My greater concern is, let’s face it, Microsoft is not known for the security of its products. Security is one of the reasons we constantly have to update our Windows operating systems. Windows 8 is not likely to be any different from the other operating systems Microsoft has created over the years. In other words, I expect Windows 8 will have holes big enough to drive a hacker’s truck through.

On an individual level, lets say hackers decide they want to have fun, figure out how to take advantage of the kill switch, and start deleting things from people’s computers. Or perhaps one business decides to mess with another business and take down its machines. These things happen all the time. A colleague of mine experienced an attack on his web servers recently. A criminal held the servers hostage in exchange for money. This is becoming more and more common. Bank websites are constantly being shut down by hackers. So are we providing those hackers an even more powerful weapon with a kill switch like this? Will we be enabling them to shut down our entire computers? Even worse, what about national security?  Government computers will be using Windows 8 sooner or later. Will they be vulnerable to misuse of a kill switch?

Kill Switches Can Be Valuable…But

It isn’t that I don’t see the value to kill switches. Google made good use of its kill switch to remove infected apps from approximately 250 thousand computers. I can see Microsoft appropriately removing infected apps, given the temptation that exists to hackers when they see the number of computers they can easily impact through a malicious Windows app store app. But Amazon showed us how a kill switch can be abused in the midst of a copyright dispute. What happens if someone with nefarious purposes gains this kind of power over our computers?

Phones and tablets are one thing. Moving the very powerful kill switch idea to desktops and laptops? I have some very serious concerns. So do others. And so should you.


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