Something wrong with our **** chips today (The Economist)
Photo courtesy Marcus Vegas
Towards the end of the Kyrgyzstan civil war in 2032, General Askar’s insurgents were routed in a rapid series of battles across the Jalal-Abad Province. Many independent observers believed that the Transitional Authority had defeated the insurgents through superior numbers and materiel, and while had both, some were puzzled at how General Askar’s forces crumbled so quickly after having put up a strong resistance for over two years.
It emerged that General Askar had been the victim of 47 separate ‘kill switch’ activations in a few days towards the end of the war. These kill switches degraded the insurgent’s communications and drone network to the point of uselessness with frequent crashes and in the case of some glasses and drone recharging pods, physical explosions. The Transitional Authority took advantage of the confusion to mount a fierce ground offensive on two fronts, decapitating the elite ‘Green Guard’ with special forces and taking the General prisoner.
I have a pair of sunglasses from the civil war in front of me, owned by one Colonel Erkebaev, a 38 year old from Osh. They’ve got thin silver rims and tough plastic lenses; not a particularly fashionable item, but very much military spec, manufactured by FPLS SK in South Korea. Along with being hardened against electromagnetic pulses and having an in-built array microphone, it has a high capacity silicon alloy battery contained in frame.
It’s these batteries that we’re interested in. Let’s take a closer look with Academician Juica from the Aragon Institute of Technology:
“It’s clear from the scorch marks that these batteries overheated, destroying the glasses within seconds. Luckily for Colonel Erkebaev, she wasn’t wearing them, because they would’ve gotten awfully hot. The cause lies in a special chip located at the tip of the right arm. It’s not shown in any of the schematics or virtual manufacturing models, and it was only found by a painstaking forensic examination. The chip only does two things – it waits for a signal, and when it receives it, it overrides all the safeties on the batteries and burns them out. It’s a classic kill switch.”
What’s remarkable about this chip is that it doesn’t use the glasses’ in-built wireless system; if it did, there would be a risk – a tiny risk, but still there – that the ‘kill signal’ might be detected and intercepted. Instead, it uses the glasses’ frame as an antenna to receive ultra-low-bit-rate messages. And just like Colonel Erkebaev glasses, at least 20 other key officials suffered catastrophic failures of their personal network devices within the same hour. Everyone thought they were the only one, and by the time people were discussing the potential of a virus or faulty hardware, the Transitional Authority were already moving it.
Kill switches were hardly a new invention, having been used since the 20th century to monitor or control weapons and computers by security organisations that enjoyed a technological edge. In practice, this meant countries such as the United States, the UK, Germany, Israel, and in the 21st century, China, Taiwan, Japan, and South Korea. They had the engineering expertise and facilities to subtly alter devices without being noticed.
Unsurprisingly, as microchips and computers found their way into increasing numbers of devices and manufacturing began shifting to Southeast Asia, and later, India and Africa, the kill switch arms race was afoot. Largely unseen by the public, government and security organisations were scrambling to cope with the flood of potentially compromised devices that were being used by millions of people, including politicians and top businessmen, while simultaneously developing their own exploits. We recognise this today as being a colossal waste of resources akin to the nuclear arms race, but even more widespread and arguably more damaging in practice.
The two leaders in this race quickly became South Korea (aided by the United Stated) and China. Both countries routinely inserted compromised chips and circuitry into consumer and military electronics that even microscopic inspection wouldn’t discover. The glasses worn by Colonel Erkebaev, made by FLPS SK, were part of a batch that were swapped in Turkey, en-route to Kyrgyzstan, when they were suspected as having been ordered for use by the insurgents.
After US deep cover agents determined that the glasses had made it to the insurgents, a series of low power transmissions were made from local radio stations in Jalal-Abad. Over the course of a month, various backdoors were activated on the glasses that gave South Korea and the US access to many of the insurgents’ top officials. After some frantic political wranglings, they decided to weigh in on the Transitional Authority’s side – not by supplying any intelligence, but by activating the final kill switch and effectively winning the civil war at a stroke.
To provide cover, a faked intrusion into FPLS SK’s systems was arranged in which a cache of emails suggesting internal sabotage was responsible for the glasses malfunctions. This story held for a few days until a number of people concerned about exploding batteries began investigating the model numbers of their own glasses. Inconsistencies began mounting and soon enough, students at Second Copenhagen Free School published electron microscopy results with the insert chips clearly labelled.
Naturally, none of the parties involved ever admitted culpability, but as billions of people began worrying (mostly inaccurately) that their own devices were at risk of exploding as well and consequently forming co-operative efforts to verify the integrity of hardware, it became clear that the age of the kill switch had finally become unacceptable to the world population. This episode also led to the mini-boom (and subsequent bust) in nanoscale fabricators-in-a-box, which allowed small organisations to make their own ‘trusted’ microchips. Unfortunately the technology was rather unreliable and expensive, leading most to return to mass-produced electronics.
Government intrusion to people’s lives had been taken as a given in many authoritarian countries – in some cases, it was actually welcomed. But changing attitudes towards personal freedom, and an increasing distrust of politicians thanks to endemic corruption, altered that equation. The sheer insouciance of the use of the kill switch in the glasses, in a civil war that most people didn’t even understand, was a key turning point in the retreat of unauthorised surveillance.