Military Kill Switches: A Great Idea That Won't Happen Soon

The ruthless killers of ISIS are wreaking havoc in the Middle East, aided in no small part by U.S. military weaponry the group has hijacked from the Iraqi army. But according to one Harvard law professor, there's an easy fix to our own weapons being used against us: kill switches.

In a column for Scientific American, internet futurist and security evangelist Jonathan Zittrain makes a compelling case for kill switches in military weaponry. The idea makes great sense at face value. The U.S. is giving all of this powerful equipment to foreign countries, and when it falls into the wrong hands, there's not really anything we can do about it. So why not install the same kind of kill switches that are in iPhones into tanks and Humvees and what not?

The reason we haven't so far is fairly straightforward; as we've recently reported, the military is very wary of anything that could be hacked. Kill switches often—but not always!—require a network, which carries plenty of dangers of its own. That's also a big reason why much of the military still uses otherwise antiquated technology. If it can't connect to the internet, hackers can't use the internet to sabotage it or gain access to invaluable intelligence. Zittrain offers a few ideas to work around this problem:

More simply, any device with onboard electronics, such as a Stinger or a modern tank, could have a timed expiration; the device could operate after the expiration date only if it receives a coded "renew" signal from any of a number of overhead satellites. The renewal would take effect as a matter of course—unless, say, the weapons were stolen. This fail-safe mechanism could be built using basic and well-tested digital signature-and-authentication technologies.

That could mitigate misuse, but it wouldn't completely prevent it. In fact, a type of kill switch does exist, but it was developed back in 1949. In decades since, the Department of Defense has been working on implementing better kill switches, and DARPA's even commissioned IBM to build self-destructing chips. We're not nearly at a place where it's practical, though. A European chip maker built a kill switch into its microprocessors a few years ago; in 2007, Israeli jets exploited it to bomb Syria. You can only imagine how nervous that incident made the American researchers working on building similar technologies. Until we reach zero margin of error, it's not going to happen.

All that said, Zittrain's call to arms is a good one. Installing hacker-proof kill switches in military weaponry is a great idea. Unfortunately, for now it can't be anything more than that. [Scientific American, IEEE Spectrum]

Image via Flickr / DoD