Object 38

The Kill Switch

2032, Jalal-Abad, Kyrgyzstan

In the final days of the Kyrgyzstan civil war in 2032, General Askar's forces were routed in a rapid series of battles across Jalal-Abad Province. Most observers believed that the Transitional Authority had defeated Askar's insurgents through superior numbers and materiel. While that appeared to make sense, it was still puzzling how the insurgents had crumbled so quickly after putting up a strong resistance for more than two years.

It later emerged that in those closing battles, General Askar had been the target of 47 separate 'kill switches'; the kill switches, when activated, massively degraded his forces' communications and drone network. Plagued with constant crashes and, in the case of some glasses and drone recharging pods, physical explosions, Askar's army was left near-defenceless. The Transitional Authority took advantage of the confusion to decapitate the elite 'Green Guard' with their special forces, take the General prisoner, and end the war.

I have a pair of sunglasses from the civil war in front of me, owned by one Colonel Erkebaev of Osh, a 38-year-old officer in Askar's army. The glasses have thin silver rims and tough plastic lenses; not particularly fashionable, but very much military spec, manufactured by FPLS UK in Unified Korea. Its frame and legs contain a nanoprojector, CPU, a high-capacity silicon alloy battery, and an array microphone. The entire unit is hardened against electromagnetic impulses.

Let's take a closer look at the glasses with Academician Pieter Juica from the Aragon Institute of Technology:

"It's clear from the scorch marks that the batteries overheated, destroying the glasses within seconds. Luckily for Colonel Erkebaev, she wasn't wearing them, because they would've burned her quite badly. The cause of the overheating lies in a special hidden chip located at the tip of the right arm. If you look at the official schematics or manufacturing models, you won't be able to find the chip; only a painstaking forensic examination reveals its existence.

"This chip does two things, and two things only — 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 — 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 out-of-band; a masterful, deadly piece of engineering trickery.

At exactly the same time that Colonel Erkebaev's glasses exploded, 20 other glasses used by Askar's top leaders suffered catastrophic failures. Within an hour, the Transitional Authority's forces were attacking — and they were met with little resistance.

Kill switches were hardly a new invention; they’d been introduced into weapons and computers by advanced security services since the 20th century. Countries such as the United States, the UK, Germany, Israel — and in the 21st century, China, Taiwan, Japan, and Unified Korea — all had the engineering expertise and facilities to subtly alter software and devices without notice.

As all devices became increasingly reliant on computer power and manufacturing shifted to Southeast Asia (and later, India and Africa), the threat of kill switches also grew. Unbeknownst to their citizens, governments around the world scrambled to cope with a flood of billions of potentially compromised electronic devices — devices used by almost everyone, including politicians and military officers. Of course, they did this while simultaneously developing their own exploits.

The two leaders in this race were Unified Korea (aided by the United States’ National Security Agency) and China. Both countries routinely inserted compromised chips and circuitry into consumer and military electronics that even most professionals would miss. Colonel Erkebaev's glasses, made by FLPS UK, are thought to have been part of a batch that were specially modified by the NSA; when the NSA discovered that General Askar had ordered glasses, they swapped in their modified batch in Turkey, while the devices were en-route to Kyrgyzstan.

After informants confirmed the glasses had successfully 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 Unified Korea and the US access to the insurgents' networks. After they had gathered all the data they could, they activated the kill switch and ended the civil war in a stroke.

To provide cover for their actions, the US faked an intrusion into FPLS UK's systems that 'revealed' emails proving that the glasses' malfunctions were the work of internal sabotage by an indignant, racist manager. This story held for a few days until researchers, concerned about exploding batteries, began investigating their own glasses. Inconsistencies began mounting, and when students at Second Copenhagen Free School published electron microscopy results with the insert chips clearly labelled, the ruse was discovered.

Naturally, none of the parties involved ever admitted culpability. Yet as people worried that their own devices were at risk of exploding and started independently verifying the integrity of their hardware, it was clear that kill switches had finally become unacceptable. Nanoscale 'fabs-in-a-box', which allowed small organisations to make their own 'trusted' microchips, enjoyed a mini-boom until people found the chips were too unreliable and expensive, leading most to return to mass-produced electronics.

Government intrusion into people's lives had already been taken as a given in many authoritarian countries; in some places, it was even welcomed. But changing attitudes towards personal freedom and an increasing distrust of politicians (thanks to endemic corruption) altered that equation. Kill switches represented the worst intrusion imaginable, and the sheer arrogance of their creators became their downfall.