Military kill switches: if implemented, will they work as intended?

(screenshot from video below)

In an article for Scientific American, author Jonathan Zittrian explores the idea of a kill switch for military weaponry.  Professor of Law and Professor of Computer Science at Harvard, as well as the Director of its Berkman Center for Internet & Society, Zittrian provides insight on the pros and cons of the concept.

During a time of concurrent crises occurring around the globe, with U.S. military supplied equipment traveling the world, there is an ever-lingering concern about weapons falling into the wrong hands.  Even when weapons are traded and sold legitimately, militant groups find a way to obtain the destructive technology.

Zittrian offers the solution of installing a kill switch of sorts to enable the U.S. to remotely disable weapons when needed.  He cites that other technologies like smartphone already use this type of technology.  He asks the question, “If this feature is worth putting in consumer devices, why not embed it in devices that can be so devastatingly repurposed, including against their rightful owners, as at the Mosul Dam?”

He brings up two major concerns that plague his vision.  First he acknowledges that an immediate worry may be that the kill switch will not function when it is supposed to.  On the other end of the spectrum, what if it works when not intended?  He shares the example of “what if it is hacked by an enemy?”

Offering a solution of a fail-safe mechanism, Zittrian suggests that a safety feature could be built into the weapons using digital signature-and-authentication technologies.  Devices like a tank could only operate if they receive a code update at predetermined times from overhead satellites.

He writes in Scientific American that the simplest way to use a kill switch “would be to place it in the hands of the weapons’ original recipients.” He proposes an even more radical use of a kill switch would be to leave it in the hands of the weapons-providing government. This would turn weaponry into a service rather than a product. Many arms purchasers would no doubt turn elsewhere, but others might find the U.S. to be the only willing source.

Zittrian believes implementation is everything, and policy makers must reflect on the long-term consequences of using them. However, in the present time, he notes we are making a conscious choice to create and share medium and heavy weaponry while not restricting its use. He emphasizes that this choice has very real impacts. He strongly states, “If they can save even one innocent life at the end of a deactivated U.S. barrel, including the lives of our own soldiers, kill switches are worth a serious look.”

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