Google and Microsoft have agreed to include kill switches in all new Android and Windows phones at the behest of New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, a measure aimed at combating theft but one which will also raise alarm bells for privacy-oriented libertarians.
“Google, based in Mountain View, California, said in a statement today it will add a “factory reset protection solution” to its next version of Android,” reports Bloomberg. “Microsoft’s Vice President for U.S. Government Affairs Fred Humphries said the Redmond, Washington-based company will offer new theft-deterrence mechanisms in an update for phones running its software, including those made by Nokia Oyj.”
New Apple iPhones have had the kill switch installed since September last year, a factor NY Attorney General Eric Schneiderman has hailed as instrumental in lowering thefts.
However, the new measure is sure to cause consternation amongst libertarians and political activists given previous examples of governments using the power of the kill switch to stifle dissent, such as Turkey’s recent blackout of Twitter.
Although the ‘kill switch’ would ostensibly be included to discourage theft, a scenario where authorities could hijack the technology to shut down communications in a sensitive area in order to limit photo and streaming video coverage, such as at a demonstration or at the scene of unfolding police brutality, is easy to envisage.
Earlier this year, we reported on a Google patent for a system that would alert law enforcement authorities if a number of photos were taken in one specific location by smartphone users, raising questions as to what level of remote access companies like Google should have to people’s personal devices.
Back in 2012, Apple also filed a patent allowing it to wirelessly disable cameras on iPhones by “forcing certain electronic devices to enter “sleep mode” when entering a sensitive area.”
Protests, political gatherings and other events at which authorities wish to prevent communication, documentation or video streaming could be turned into dead zones by creating a “geofence” around designated locations.
The patent was registered in anticipation of giving police or government the power to impose a “blackout” on all communications during certain times because cellphones can “annoy, frustrate, and even threaten people in sensitive venues.”
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