Feb 25

The Kill Switch Comes to the PC (Bloomberg/Businessweek, Feb. 16, 2012):

Janne Kytömäki, a Finnish software developer, was cruising Google’s (GOOG) Android Market for smartphone apps last year when he noticed something strange. Dozens of best-selling applications suddenly listed the same wrong publisher. It was as if Stephen King’s name had vanished from the covers of his books, replaced by an unknown author. Kytömäki realized the culprit was a piece of malware that was spreading quickly, and he posted his findings online.

Google responded swiftly. It flipped a little-known kill switch, reaching into more than 250,000 infected Android smartphones and forcibly removing the malicious code. “It was sort of unreal, watching something like that unfold,” says Kytömäki, who makes dice simulator apps. Kill switches are a standard part of most smartphones, tablets, and e-readers. Google, Apple (AAPL), and Amazon (AMZN) all have the ability to reach into devices to delete illicit content or edit code without users’ permission. It’s a powerful way to stop threats that spread quickly, but it’s also a privacy and security land mine.

With the rollout of the Windows 8 operating system expected later this year, millions of desktop and laptop PCs will get kill switches for the first time. Microsoft (MSFT) hasn’t spoken publicly about its reasons for including this capability in Windows 8 beyond a cryptic warning that it might be compelled to use it for legal or security reasons. The feature was publicized in a widely cited Computerworld article in December when Microsoft posted the terms of use for its new application store, a feature in Windows 8 that will allow users to download software from a Microsoft-controlled portal. Windows smartphones, like those of its competitors, have included kill switches for several years, though software deletion “is a last resort, and it’s uncommon,” says Todd Biggs, director of product management for Windows Phone Marketplace.

Microsoft declined to answer questions about the kill switch in Windows 8 other than to say it will only be able to remove or change applications downloaded through the new app store. Any software loaded from a flash drive, DVD, or directly from the Web will remain outside Microsoft’s control. Still, the kill switch is a tool that could help Microsoft prevent mass malware infections. “For most users, the ability to remotely remove apps is a good thing,” says Charlie Miller, a researcher with the security company Accuvant.

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