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Marketplace Morning Report

Should weapons have a kill switch?

Ben Johnson and Aparna Alluri Apr 6, 2015
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When the Iraqi army gave up Mosul in June 2014, the fleeing soldiers left behind large amounts of weaponry that had been supplied by the United States. By some accounts, three army divisions’ worth of Humvees, helicopters, anti-aircraft missiles and tanks fell into the hands of ISIS.

The news made Jonathan Zittrain, a Harvard professor and one of the directors of the Berkman Center for Internet and Society, wonder if there was some way to build weapons that could be turned off remotely. Like the way you turn off a smartphone that is lost or stolen.  

In an article he published in Scientific American, Zittrain argued: “It is past time that we consider whether we should build in a way to remotely disable such dangerous tools in an emergency. Other technologies, including smartphones, already incorporate this kind of capability.”

He was referring to the “kill switch,” a feature that allows Apple users to turn off their iPhone remotely so it cannot be turned on or accessed without the original owner’s permission.  

“I probably shouldn’t have called them kill switches,” said Zittrain, while speaking to Marketplace Tech. “This would really be a not kill switch.”

If we can turn off our smartphones from a distance to prevent them from being used by others, said Zittrain, why not try and do the same for deadly weapons? “We are talking tanks and anti-aircraft missiles and such,” he said.

How would the technology work? “Well, the technology is, of course, really tricky,” admitted Zittrain. “The last thing you want is for any form of kill switch or disabling mechanism to be triggered by the adversary when the thing hasn’t been stolen.”

He thinks one way to do this would be to have equipment naturally expire at a certain date unless it’s renewed by a code. But in order to equip weapons with such technology, Zittrain added, consumers must be “down with the plan.”

“This is not about a secret kill switch,” he said. “This is about a perfectly open one. Ideally, viewed as a feature rather than a bug.”

 He believes those who buy the weapons and deploy them in battle need to be invested in what happens to the weapons when the war ends or if they fall into the wrong hands.

He points to landmines as an example of what happens when consumers are not invested.

“Who’s going to take responsibility for digging it all up?” said Zittrain. “The consumer might be indifferent to the fact that it’s going to last 6 years because they don’t expect the war to go on that long but it could have incredibly important consequences.”

 

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