Circuit Breaker

There’s something I’ve been hoping to encounter over the years of writing about tech and gadgets that never seems to materialize: A hardware switch to disconnect my device from all outside communication. Call me paranoid, but airplane mode just isn’t good enough for me. Such a switch for wireless (or for the camera, or the microphone) seems to me an elementary protection against a number of potential dangers, and I doubt I’m the only one who would appreciate it.

It’s not that I think The Man is secretly tracking my phone at all times, even when I’m in airplane mode. If anything, He and the companies we all pay for data connections are doing so relatively openly! That’s expected now, and circumvented in other ways. It’s just a matter of trust in a number of parties’ honesty and competency.

You trust Apple or Google or whoever makes your phone or laptop to successfully shut off the wireless in your device when you ask it to. And that trust probably isn’t misplaced — failing to do so would have incurred the wrath of the FAA and any number of privacy and security organizations. In the same way, you also trust that when the LED isn’t lit, your camera isn’t active, and likewise the microphone.

But it isn’t much in the way of fantasy to imagine an emergency signal that wakes up a component, just as there are signals and techniques being patented to turn them off. If Apple is considering (and probably engineering) a means to shut down your camera so it can’t take pictures of copyrighted works, aren’t immediate extrapolations from that a legitimate concern?

So why not have a way to totally shut down components of a device? There’s no trust necessary if you yourself can see that the method of providing power to the wireless chip or camera module has been interrupted.

Not everyone cares, of course. But be honest: How many of you with discrete webcams have them pointed anywhere but at you right now? How many of you are always aware of the presence of the unblinking, cyclopean electronic eye above your laptop’s screen? Have you never considered how easy it might be to hijack the microphone or camera for a hacker or, for that matter, someone lawfully observing you using means graciously provided by the creator of the OS? Carrier IQ, anybody? FBI begging software companies for government backdoor privileges?

It’s not paranoia to have a chain lock as well as a deadbolt — redundancy is just a part of good security practices.

When you’re protecting your bank account, or your email, you don’t hesitate to ask for two-factor authentication. One would think that when setting up your daughter’s webcam or phone, you’d be able to take similarly thorough steps. Perhaps even with the pervasion of smartphones and other connected devices in our homes and on our persons, not enough people are aware of the fact that the only lock on their digital devices is one frequently exposed, indeed advertised, to the online world. To have a switch under your thumb that renders your device inaccessible to the physical phenomenon used to operate it is the ultimate protection. That people aren’t clamoring for it is honestly surprising to me.

Unfortunately, I doubt it will happen for a number of reasons. It’s troublesome for the user to have to worry about it, for one thing, and most would ignore it. It also undermines trust in the OS and its security — would you buy a lock from a guy who said “maybe you should get this one too, just in case”? And technically speaking, shutting off and restarting a component constantly (especially in system-on-a-chip architecture) is not trivial. It’s doubtful manufacturers will decide to isolate certain portions just so you can power them on and off at will (again, not a simple process).

Still, I can dream. I’ve always felt the need to exert control over my devices, and I am frustrated at every point along the frontier where my privileges as a user end. I have faith, at least, in people of like mind but more capable, to either provide such security measures as will satisfy those even more suspicious than myself, or to convince me of their superfluity.

[Image: Paul Cross / Flickr]