Windows 8 Will Have a “Kill Switch”

(VIGILANT CITIZEN)   The very anticipated operating system Windows 8 will have a feature that was never found on PC’s before: A kill switch that can remotely delete software and edit code without the user’s permission. Although Microsoft claims the switch would only be used for software that is downloaded from its app store, no official policies clearly define the actual purpose of the kill switch. In other words, nothing is truly considered “illegal” and that includes issues regarding spying, censorship and free speech. Although the kill switch is promoted as a “tool against malware” it can potentially accomplish much, much more. In fact, it would not be impossible to have all smart-phones and Windows PC’s simultaneously shut down at any given time. The following article from Business Week also mentions the infamous case of Amazon that remotely deleted from user’s Kindle e-readers illegal copies of two books. Which ones? Prepare for intense irony…George Orwell’s 1984 and Animal Farm.


The Kill Switch Comes to the PC

A feature common in phones will let Microsoft remotely disable malware

Janne Kytömäki, a Finnish software developer, was cruising Google’s (GOOG) Android Market for smartphone apps last year when he noticed something strange. Dozens of best-selling applications suddenly listed the same wrong publisher. It was as if Stephen King’s name had vanished from the covers of his books, replaced by an unknown author. Kytömäki realized the culprit was a piece of malware that was spreading quickly, and he posted his findings online.

Google responded swiftly. It flipped a little-known kill switch, reaching into more than 250,000 infected Android smartphones and forcibly removing the malicious code. “It was sort of unreal, watching something like that unfold,” says Kytömäki, who makes dice simulator apps. Kill switches are a standard part of most smartphones, tablets, and e-readers. Google, Apple (AAPL), and Amazon (AMZN) all have the ability to reach into devices to delete illicit content or edit code without users’ permission. It’s a powerful way to stop threats that spread quickly, but it’s also a privacy and security land mine.

With the rollout of the Windows 8 operating system expected later this year, millions of desktop and laptop PCs will get kill switches for the first time. Microsoft (MSFT) hasn’t spoken publicly about its reasons for including this capability in Windows 8 beyond a cryptic warning that it might be compelled to use it for legal or security reasons. The feature was publicized in a widely cited Computerworldarticle in December when Microsoft posted the terms of use for its new application store, a feature in Windows 8 that will allow users to download software from a Microsoft-controlled portal. Windows smartphones, like those of its competitors, have included kill switches for several years, though software deletion “is a last resort, and it’s uncommon,” says Todd Biggs, director of product management for Windows Phone Marketplace.

Microsoft declined to answer questions about the kill switch in Windows 8 other than to say it will only be able to remove or change applications downloaded through the new app store. Any software loaded from a flash drive, DVD, or directly from the Web will remain outside Microsoft’s control. Still, the kill switch is a tool that could help Microsoft prevent mass malware infections. “For most users, the ability to remotely remove apps is a good thing,” says Charlie Miller, a researcher with the security company Accuvant.

The history of kill switches on smartphones and e-readers suggests they’re double-edged swords for the companies that wield them. In 2009, Amazon reached into users’ Kindles to delete e-book copies of George Orwell’s 1984 and Animal Farm that had been sold by a publisher without the necessary rights. The ensuing backlash caused Amazon Chief Executive Officer Jeff Bezos to call the move “stupid, thoughtless, and painfully out of line with our principles.”

The reluctance of tech companies to set explicit policies for when they will and will not use kill switches contributes to the fear they’ll be abused. Civil rights and free speech advocates worry that tech companies could be pressured by governments to delete software or data for political reasons. “You have someone who has absolute control over my hard drive in ways I may have never anticipated or consented to,” says Eric Goldman, director of the High Tech Law Institute at Santa Clara University’s law school in California. “If they use that power wisely, they actually make my life better. We don’t know if they use the power wisely. In fact, we may never know when they use their power at all.”

Hiroshi Lockheimer, Google’s vice president of Android engineering, says the search company reserves the use of the kill switch for “really egregious, really obvious cases” of harmful content. Microsoft’s Biggs says the company has used the functionality in its smartphones only for “technical issues and content issues.” Apple declined to comment. Amazon did not respond to several messages.

Like many in his profession, Kevin Mahaffey, co-founder of the San Francisco startup Lookout, which makes security software for smartphones, expresses mixed emotions about the emergence of kill switches. “The remote removal tools are very much a response to the mistakes of the PC era,” he says. “Whether or not it’s an over-correction, I think history will tell us. It can be done right, but we as an industry need to tread carefully. It’s easy to imagine several dystopian futures that can arise from this.”

One supporter is Janne Kytömäki, the Finn who discovered the Android malware outbreak. He says Google did the right thing by deleting the malware without users’ permission. “What was the alternative?” he says. “Leave those apps installed on 200,000 people’s mobiles? This is something that had to be done.”

– Source: Business Week

6 Responses to Windows 8 Will Have a “Kill Switch”

  • A large majority of American businesses are REQUIRED to use Microsoft and Google programs. Even college students need Microsoft/Google just to get jobs.

    How does it feel to know that an entire business structure or career path can be made or broken by Microsoft?

    Remember the days when people could run their businesses without all of this interference? Templates,software programs, and business forms were unique to each company and much less easy to abuse.

    Now all global companies are connected. One good week-long power outage or major hacking event and a lot of businesses will go under. Except Microsoft.

  • Jill, while some might consider it not as pretty, Linux can do pretty much everything any Microsoft of Apple OS can do, but without the additional worry about the control-freakery of either corporation.

  • We need this kill switch. Look at your fellow Internet user. Opening any email attachment. Responding to Nigerian princes. Gleefully (ok, ignorantly) installing any toolbar they see. As long as those users exist, we will need a way to counteract them. The kill switch is one of them.

    It’s no different than a lot of other activities. We could all drive 100 miles an hour, except that you know 10% of the population would kill themselves- and take may innocents with them.

    Same with teh internets. A few bad bananas spoil the bunch. That is why Apple puts their apps in jail. It’s the perfect place for users of that stripe.

    Until users become a whole lot better, keep the kill switch. Those that need it will have it, and those that don’t will be able to circumvent it.

  • Liberty is such a fantastic thing!, but it has its own drawbacks. One of them is everyone is responsible for its own actions. Consequently, If someone fills his own computer with virus-prone apps, he’ll have to take responsibility to install a counter-measure app such as an anti-virus soft or similar. A kill switch is a threat to our own rights and a threat to our liberty and privacy. The end doesn’t justify the means. The owner of the computer is the only responsible for keeping it safe and clean. The kill switch solution is an unsolicited interference from a corporation inside our private life. I’m not a windows user, but if, I were, I wouldn’t switch to win 8 just for this single “feature”.

  • Any software that features an update or an automatic update function can easily add functionality to itself which can include remotely deleting software, editing code, installing spyware, etc, all without the user’s permission. Almost all popular software today comes with some sort of update function.
    Computers should remain the property of their owners and their only intended use is for the benefit of their owners. Software makers need to start respecting this.

  • When you’ve finally had enough of this control-freak, quasi monopoly that Microsoft represents — free yourself. Contact a Linux User Group (LUG) near you to learn about this Open Source operating system and what it can do for you.

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