The recent “Uber Files” reveal that the company had deployed kill switches, purportedly to destroy sensitive data that could have been legitimately accessed by police and officials. But kill switches are also helpful tools. We explain how.
What’s Uber doing with kill switches?
The Uber Files investigation shows the company had deployed kill switches at least 12 times in France, the Netherlands, Belgium, India, Hungary and Romania when officials began gathering evidence that could have been used to shut down its service. Uber, according to the report, first used a kill switch in late 2014 in Paris. A year later, it used the technology again when Belgian authorities wanted to obtain company data about drivers that was residing on servers in the US. Uber, though, claimed its kill switches were “not designed or implemented to obstruct justice” and that the practice was discontinued in 2017.
What exactly does a kill switch do?
A kill switch can disable a specific function or stop a certain process instantly. In the manufacturing sector, they are deployed to terminate operations to arrest damage in assembly lines or save a worker’s life. They serve a similar purpose in the digital world but instead of hardware, they are mostly software-based. In 2014, the kill switch was proposed as a solution to combat smartphone theft in the US. Consequently, users the world over can now remotely delete their data and render their smartphones useless if lost or stolen. Even amusement parks and petrol pumps have kill switches for obvious reasons.
How easy is it to spot a kill switch on the internet?
A kill switch in a factory or vehicle could simply be a red button to stop operations or kill an engine. However, spotting a digital kill switch would be harder because it’s mostly software-based and triggered only when a user or enterprise is in danger. Besides, hackers embed kill switches in their malware to destroy them remotely to avoid being traced if they’re spotted.
Why kill switches have a negative ring
Countries like Turkey, Iran, China, India, the US, and the UK are known to have blocked citizens from accessing the internet either completely, or in pockets citing national security. They do so by simply mandating internet services providers (ISPs) and telcos that can block sites or even kill access completely in specific regions. While Egypt, Iran, Turkey and China are well-known examples, India, too, has shut down internet connections in Kashmir and some north-eastern states.
But we can’t do away with kill switches
Hackers delight in cracking connected devices and networks. Some VPN providers offer a kill switch to automatically disconnect your device from the web in case you lose your VPN connection, protecting your privacy. Phone thefts fell after makers introduced the remote kill switch. They can also remotely disable smart weapons and prevent misuse. Consumer Watchdog’s 2019 report said every connected car should include an internet kill switch to prevent hackers from remotely controlling them.