The Stun Switch

In thinking about Bruce Schneier’s post on Wired.com, I’ve Seen the Future, and It Has a Kill Switch, I can’t help replaying in my head an Eddie Izzard bit about the kill/stun dichotomy of the “phaser” weapons in Star Trek.

There should have been many more settings, not just kill and stun.  Kill, stun, limp: that’s the next one down, isn’t it?  …or maybe on “bit of a cough” setting, even lower than that.

Some devices already have a remotely enabled kill switch, such as corporate Blackberries with remote wipe cabability (intended to protect sensitive company data should it be lost or stolen), and others will soon follow, like reports that OnStar is adding the ability to remotely stop the engine of a connected car (again, marketed as an anti-theft system).

Microsoft, however, is looking to set its phasers on stun, limp, or even “bit of a cough.”  They’ve filed a patent application for something they call Device Manners Policies (DMP), another Minitrue-style name and acronym, which, like Digital Rights Management is less about manners (or rights) andPhaser 2 by Ted Sali more about restrictions.  Schneier calls it Selective Device Jamming.  Essentially, under this scheme, locations will be outfitted with hardware to broadcast to your devices the rules of the land, such as “vibrate only” for cell phones, or “no photography” for cameras.  Hospitals or airplanes where critical equipment can be subject to interference from wireless devces would be able to force your devices into sleep mode until you leave the area (how will such wireless transmissions be guaranteed not to cause interference themselves?).

Microsoft wants to draw analogies with the societal guidelines we call “manners,” i.e. that it’s considered rude to talk on your cell phone in the movie theatre.  However, this is a false analogy since manners are guidelines, not rules.  DMP wants to disable functionality in your electronics (albeit temporarily) without your consent, or force them into sleep mode: limp and stun settings.

No, an actual manners technology is only a short step away from the “location-based services” stuff that all the cool kids were talking about 2 years ago–some of which are already out.  See, once your devices know where they are, you can do digital manners all client-side, without having to contact the Borg Cube to get your orders.  You have a couple different profiles, such as “theatre” which might mean switching to silent, “office” which sets ring volume to low, and “street” which sets it to high so you can hear it above the sounds of the city.  Simple, no external restrictions, and the user still stays in control.  Each person is free to choose to obey social guidelines or not: just like real manners.

Photo by Ted Sali
Creative Commons Licensed

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