Windows & Other OS

What is a physical kill switch? Does your PC need one?

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Have you seen tech gurus record on their webcams But a circuit breaker is a more elegant solution to the very real privacy threat posed by devices like cameras and microphones. The question is: do you need one for your privacy?

Sometimes off is not really off

Our smartphones, laptops, smart speakers and other similar modern devices offer settings that tell us that no one is watching or listening. However, how do you know that the software-based “kill switch” actually does anything?

By now, there are many notorious stories of hackers accessing webcams and they record people sitting at their computers. The person in question does not realize it, even when modern cameras have a light that indicates that the camera is filming.

That’s because hackers are also discovering vulnerabilities to bypass the recording light. It’s one of the reasons that webcam covers have become a popular product, although it does nothing to stop sound recording.

Ultimately, you have no way of knowing that a simple software toggle actually does what it says. The only way to ensure that a device or component of a device is truly inoperable is to cut off its physical connection to power and data. That’s where a physical kill switch comes in.

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You’ve used a kill switch before

While you may not have heard of the term “circuit breaker” referred to, you have almost certainly used one before. For example, laptops with physical WiFi switches turn off WiFi hardware, making WiFi use impossible. Of course, it is also possible to make a physical switch that only activates a software setting, so it is no more reliable than a software switch.

If you are using a usb webcam external or a microphone with your computer, you have access to the most basic type of kill switch – just unplug your hardware.

Unfortunately, when it comes to webcams and built-in microphones, you don’t have this option unless the laptop manufacturer specifically incorporates the switch into their hardware.

Physical death switches in nature

Librem WiFi Kill Switch

Purism is a company founded on the idea of ​​having strict privacy and security features built into your computers. The Librem 14 is a prime example of this philosophy, and its hardware, firmware, and operating system have been designed with a significantly higher level of paranoia than typical computers.

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The laptop Librem 14 Linux It has multiple switches off physical, which the company claims absolutely disables related hardware. There are switches for the webcam and microphone, as well as WiFi and Bluetooth. When it comes to the Librem 14 in particular, there are so many additional privacy features that kill switches are really the least of it, but there are examples of kill switches on regular laptops that don’t go to those extremes.

In 2018, HP was already shipping laptops with physical kill switches for the webcam. Their Specter laptops included these switches, so hopefully the chances of a hacked webcam recording it when you don’t want it to are virtually nil.

Circuit breakers may not always take the form of a traditional slide switch on the side of a laptop. It is fully possible to integrate the kill switch with a physical built-in camera shutter.

Other version interesting about the concept is the technology SafeShutter from Dell . There is a mechanical shutter that slides over the camera when not in use, and this can be operated manually using the F9 and F4 keys. The difference here is that they have created a dedicated hardware circuit that operates outside of the operating system. This isn’t as foolproof as a physical kill switch, but it’s a promising middle ground.

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Do you need a physical kill switch?

Should you specifically look for a laptop with a physical kill switch? Should you try installing a kill switch solution for your desktop system? It is difficult to answer these questions universally, as the needs of each user are unique. In general, the security features that come with all computers are more than enough to protect you against random attacks and hacks if you follow a few simple rules:

  • Make sure your operating system is always up to date.
  • Use a trusted antivirus and antimalware package to intercept malicious software.
  • Practice good security habits, such as not running software that you cannot verify as trustworthy.

If you are someone who works with information of a very sensitive nature. The kinds of things that would make you the target of hackers for spying purposes. If that’s you, then you’d better buy specialized secure computer hardware to limit the chances of someone spying on you or stealing your data.

All others, other than activists, politicians or Q de James Bond, can stick with basic and sensible cybersecurity and maybe an Amazon webcam cover .

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