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The Military Kill Switch: Harvard Law Professor and Cyber Scholar Makes the Case

Last week, President Obama promised a sustained military campaign to rout the rampaging insurgent group ISIS – the militants who captured and deployed U.S.-supplied equipment (Humvees, helicopters, antiaircraft cannons, tanks) earlier this summer. But what if the U.S. could disarm ISIS from a distance without military action? Harvard Law Professor and cyber security expert Jonathan Zittrain says the technology exists, and it’s past time we consider building in the kill switch for military weaponry.

In his much-discussed and -debated Scientific American article, Zittrain argues that other technologies, including smartphones, already incorporate this capability and the results are real: the theft of iPhones, for example, plummeted this year after Apple introduced the remote feature.

“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 in the ISIS situation?

Zittrain acknowledges the potential drawbacks: the kill switch might not work when it’s supposed to, or it might work when it is not supposed to – for example, if it is hacked by an enemy. But perhaps the potential good outweighs the risks.

“We are making a conscious choice to create and share medium and heavy weaponry while not restricting its use,” he explains. “This choice has very real impacts. If they can save even one innocent life… kill switches are worth a serious look.”

For Zittrain, who has long studied the legal, technological and world-shaking aspects of quickly morphing technology terrains, this topic has nothing to do with politics or exploiting fears, and everything to do with innovative thinking. An expert who looks under the covers of every assumption or standard operating procedure, the leading internet and cyber security scholar continuously sees and seeks opportunities for a better world. Often times, these opportunities open new doors for smart entrepreneurs and business leaders who can do so much with just one small, valid, less-than-obvious idea.

Zittrain, also a professor of computer science at the Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, recently took the helm as director of Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet & Society, the research institution he helped found 16 years ago. You might also be interested in his recent articles on the “right to be forgotten” and the future of libraries.