Kill Switches Coming to a Gadget near You New technology could allow police to take control of your car or even your phone. While it might be a good security tool, it could also threaten your privacy, says one security specialist.
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We tend to think of innovations as things that enable progress, but the latest wave of technology disables progress. To unwind my Zen cone, I bring you back to what may be the high-water mark in Keanu Reeves' illustrious career.

(Soundbite of movie "Speed")

Mr. DENNIS HOPPER: (As Howard Payne) Pop quiz, hot shot. There's a bomb on the bus. Once the bus goes 50 miles an hour, the bomb is armed. If it drops below 50, it blows up. What do you do?

PESCA: It turned out the plot of "Speed" would have unfolded differently if A, Dennis Hopper had shut up about Sandra Bullock's Wildcats logo, and B, if the bus had been equipped with a kill switch. Kill switches are all the rage. They are devices that give third parties the ability to turn devices off remotely. Everyone from Microsoft to GM to the Pentagon is looking for ways to sue them. Bruce Schneier is a security guru and the author of "Beyond Fear." He recently wrote about kill switches for He joins us now. Hey, Bruce. Welcome back to the BPP.

Mr. BRUCE SCHNEIER (Founder, BT Counterpane; Author, "Beyond Fear"): Thanks for having me.

PESCA: So, I listed three companies that seem to have very different motivations, Microsoft, GM and the Pentagon. What are those guys looking for kill switches to do?

Mr. SCHNEIER: Well, in those three cases, they are really looking for security purposes. GM wants to, or have announced, that they are going to add the ability to remotely disable cars in their OnStar system. And the idea is if you stole a car or are a criminal, they could call OnStar and say, shut off that engine. It's not going to turn off the steering, it's not going to turn off the breaks, but it will turn off the power. But the car, in this scenario, coasts safely to the curb, and the police arrest the guy. The Pentagon put out an RFP for technology to put kill switches in airplanes, and the idea would be again to remotely disable airplanes in case of a terrorist attack.

PESCA: In other words, like, a 9/11 situation, if they think terrorists are going to fly a plane into something else, you could shut down the plane and just kill the terrorist and everyone aboard?

Mr. SCHNEIER: It's more than kill switches. It's remotely controlling things. I mean, the easiest thing to do is to shut off the equipment. Imagine a car where I could drive it remotely, or more likely, an airplane where it forced to be forced go to automatic pilot and land at the nearest airport. So it's not just killing it. It's controlling it.

PESCA: But until we have remote-control landing technology for a plane, what can a kill switch do?

Mr. SCHNEIER: Well, planes are landed remotely mostly right now. So, that's kind of easy...

PESCA: Oh, really? We can do that with a 747, a big jumbo liner?

Mr. SCHNEIER: Oh, yeah.


Mr. SCHNEIER: In terms of buses, the same idea. There are bus companies, mostly on the East Coast right now from what I've seen, that are installing remote control capabilities. This is part of a larger program to monitor buses and figure out where they are, how fast they are going. But it's like OnStar, it includes the ability to shut it off remotely in case something happens.

PESCA: So...

Mr. SCHNEIER: I guess that's just a way to take terrorism dollars and use it for business purposes, with that instance.

PESCA: Right, because the dollars are there for the terrorism.

Mr. SCHNEIER: Right.

PESCA: So, the Pentagon looking for it, maybe, to thwart terrorism, GM, you said, that's stuff that's all crime. Microsoft, what about them?

Mr. SCHNEIER: Well, Microsoft sent a patent application for, and I saw the news a couple weeks ago, something called digital-manners policies, and the idea behind this application is there could be this whole system of devices controlling each other. So, you can imagine when you go into a theater, your phones are automatically put on mute, so they don't ring. Or they would be turned off in hospitals or on airplanes, that if you go into a movie theater, your recorders would be automatically turned off. I can imagine professors, you know, forcing cell phones to turn off or computers to turn off, so people would actually pay attention to the class. So, they are sort of envisioning this whole world of what they are calling digital manners.

PESCA: Yeah, which is, in Orwellian phrase, someone else imposing their manners upon you.

Mr. SCHNEIER: Well, once you start going down that path, it gets very, very scary. You have to build a whole system of who has authority over who. So, would the police be allowed to shut off photography? Maybe prevent another Rodney King incident? Could a criminal shut off photography? You know, where does it end? If a movie theater shuts off cell phones, if there is a doctor in the audience doesn't get an important call, is there a legal liability there? What happens when the bad guys get a hold of the ability to shut off other things? It is not easy to do. In a lot ways, it is an extension of digital-rights management, which is simply you can't record the movie.

PESCA: Well, it seems like more and more technology, the technologists' message is, you may think you own this thing, this iPod, this song, this cell phone, but you only quasi-own it, because we control the software, and we control how it works.

Mr. SCHNEIER: Yeah, more and more, technology companies want to control the stuff they sell you. It could be as simple as software that won't install on your system until it's proved that you bought it. It could be something complex as when you walk into a movie theater that suddenly your video recorder no longer works properly. But yes, the notion of you buying something, like a chair or a soft drink, doesn't really work in computers. There's a lot of money to be made in selling you individual permissions. This is just another instance of big companies wanting to get a hand on your gear.

PESCA: I used to feel like I owned my record albums. Now I think they are nice enough to let me rent my own music at times.

Mr. SCHNEIER: But yours is exactly right. If you want to go from an iPod to another brand, your music might not transfer, whereas for a record, that doesn't happen.

PESCA: You made an interesting point in your article in Wired, which is, in your opinion, a kill switch in a closed system like OnStar is one thing. You know, maybe there's still a policy of one guy or a panel who could throw the kill switch. But what do you talk about with security cameras or something that's not a closed system, where there's all bunches of different technologies, it becomes a little harrier in that case, right?

Mr. SCHNEIER: Well, this is the problem. It becomes a hard problem in any case, but building it for OnStar or airplane cockpits is easier because you control the entire system. You can do a better job making sure only the good guys have access to the kill switch and the bad guys don't and that it works properly. When you dealing with something as complex as computers and phones and PDAs and digital video recorders and cameras everything else, it would have to be an open standard that everyone has to work towards. It's much more likely that you'll get this wrong, and in fact, you will. If we got this right, it would be the first time in the history of mankind. It is an incredibly complex security system to build, and I just don't see it happening any time soon.

PESCA: I also worry that they - the technologists, the inventors, invent the kill switch or something like it, and no one is really thought about it until after it gets invented. And I worry that's entirely backwards, because like you should totally plan what this means before you have it in the marketplace.

Mr. SCHNEIER: Well, that's what you get when your market drives a solution, in some cases. This is really being driven by the media companies who, when there is sort of in their mad rush to make sure you don't make an illegal copy of their movie, they'll pretty much destroy innovation in electronics and that is kind of scary.

The other half of this, the Pentagon is also worried that the bad guys, you know, China or maybe some other countries, are secretly putting kill switches in their components. A lot of our computer equipment comes from Asia, and the Pentagon also worried about surreptitious kill switches. Right, so there is the other side of this whole equation. How do we make sure there isn't a kill switch in our airplanes or military equipment, or our computer infrastructure, put in by someone who wants to do us harm?

PESCA: Yeah. Well, Bruce, I've got to hit the kill switch on this interview.

SCHNEIER: Ah. Thanks for having me...

PESCA: But thanks very much. Bruce Schneier is security guru and author of "Beyond Fear." Thanks again, sir.

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