Saturday, April 20, 2019

Why is there no off switch?

Somebody finally asks. Larry Sanger, American internet project developer and co-founder of Wikipedia, wants to know why nothing has an OFF switch anymore.

It's almost as if the vendors of common, must-have devices want to make it possible to spy on us. An enterprising journalist should ask why they don't make such switches. They certainly have deliberately made it hard for us to stop being spied upon -- even though we're their customers. Think about that. We're their bread and butter, and we're increasingly and rightly concerned about our security. Yet they keep selling us these insecure devices. That's just weird, isn't it? What the hell is going on?

I remember a loooong time ago when I was in high school, my mother's office got an Apple computer. On an IBM PC, the off-switch was an OFF switch, it stopped the power to the motherboard. On the Apple, it was a suggestion. You pushed the "off" button, and eventually the machine would get around to shutting off. Unless it was hung, in which case it would just sit there, forever. Mom solved the problem by unplugging it at the end of the day.

But this is 2019, and now none of your shit even has a plug. The last phone I had that you could get at the battery was a Blackberry. Apple has had inaccessible batteries since the iPhone 1, I think.

Currently, as Mr. Sanger says, no hard-wired power-interruption switch is available on ANY portable electronic device I can think of off hand. And we know those devices can be turned on remotely. As Sanger says in the article, and as I've said elsewhere, people have been putting stickers or tape or bandaids over those laptop webcams since they started making them. We know that Facebook Messenger serves ads based on voice-only conversations.

For that matter the latest Big Marketing Push is for Amazon Alexa and the Google equivalent, which are always-on recording devices. With no off-switch.

Therefore, when you see an entire industry doing something bad, you must immediately follow the money. Clearly, there's money being made from spying on customers and selling the data. A great deal of money, probably. As well, there are probably government mandates buried deep in regulations that we don't know about.

What would it take to make them stop spying? That is the next question.

The answer is the same as it always is. Threat of bankruptcy. You spy, you die. That will take a social movement the size of the one currently being waged for #MeToo.

Update: Welcome Instapundit! In the comments, one person suggested an aluminum pot as a makeshift Faraday cage. Excellent thought!


WiFi Lunchbox Guy said...

Off switches at the power socket are also an option.

Orvan Taurus said...

The PinePhone is priced low-end and I wonder how well it will do at the low price point with a not-Android OS... but the pointedly have 'OFF MEANS OFF' and, if I recall right, physical switches. That might at least be enough to get people asking other makers, "Hey, how come you can't/won't do that?"

Sam L. said...

This is why I have a flip-phone. I will not pay for my own personal Stasi agent.

Al said...

It looks like an enterprising startup could market off switches.

In the case of devices like phones, this could come in the form of an effective Faraday cage (or pouch).

Paul L. Quandt said...

My computer is plugged into a power strip and after I shut it off, I turn off the power strip.

Paul L. Quandt

Whitehall said...

Had a notion I'd get a TV after many years without one. So "smart" TVs are the current models but after some research they are always listening (to voice commands - Ha!) and Google imposes advertisements, at least on the latest Sony models.

Now, I rethinking why I thought I wanted a TV at all, smart or not.

Inkling said...

The suggestion for a Faraday cage is a good one. It's essentially a metal box that can be sealed up completely. For a cell phone, a small candy tin with a lid might work. You can check the effectiveness by leaving it on, putting it inside that can, calling and seeing if it rings. Unfortunately, that'll not protect you if the spy software has a function that records when it doesn't have a cellular connection, sending the recording later.

This isn't new. Just yesterday I read about a young boy who wondered, when he visited in great-grandmother in Nazified Austria, while a tea cozy sat on the table in front of them but no tea was served. Curious, as it came time to go, he asked why. She lifted the cozy revealing a phone underneath. A vocal critic of Nazism whose social connections (and age) protected her from immediate arrest, she suspected her phone was used for listening to her. For those who're interested, the book is Hitler and the Habsburgs. The family of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, whose assassination triggered WWI, were militant anti-Nazis. The book is their family history including all they suffered for their stand. It's an incredible tale of heroism.

SDN said...

Sam, it's touching that you think that can't be turned on remotely.

Al / Orvan, the only way that would matter, namely disconnecting the power supply physically, would require damaging the device, and may not matter. One of the things that even Phantom probably doesn't remember is that every computer pretty much since the first one had a battery (AA, coin, something) on the motherboard that kept a trickle charge going, and if that battery went dead and the power was off for long enough, your computer got a lobotomy back to factory settings.

The only sure way to stop the spying is to put the device in a soundproof Faraday bag so it can't broadcast a signal to the mothership on whatever network it can reach.

Orvan Taurus said...

It doesn't turn the computer/phone off. The physical switches cause a true physical, electrical disconnection of camera, microphone, etc. The computer runs, but its sensors are disabled. And with SSD/novRAM/etc. there is no reason that OFF has to mean full factory reset. IPL (initial program load) can be to user settings, but someone has to make that happen.