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In defense of the Samsung TV kill switch

Increasingly — and across pretty much every segment of consumer product — what we use day to day is becoming less of a mere device and more of a computer with a thing attached. Cars are the obvious example; new ones essentially are computers on wheels. But the same goes for any number of other categories. Speakers. Microwaves. And, of course, televisions.

That brings us to the recent revelation that Samsung apparently can remotely disable televisions with something it calls the “Television Block Function.” In an August 6 press release from its South Africa newsroom, Samsung said that “the blocking system is intended to be implemented in respect of televisions that have been obtained by users through unlawful means and in some cases, stolen from the Samsung warehouses.” (That last part is important context due to looting that hit South Africa earlier in the summer.)

Samsung goes on to say that “this technology is already preloaded on all Samsung TV products.”

So Samsung built a kill switch into its TVs and apparently didn’t tell anyone. Or if it did, it wasn’t entirely conspicuous about it. That, understandably, has raised a few eyebrows.

Me? I’m here to say it’s OK to embrace the kill switch.

Samsung Bot Handy at CES 2021.
The Samsung Bot Handy robot as seen in the CES 2021 video. Today, it’s serving drinks and doing laundry, and tomorrow it could be overthrowing humanity.

A scary proposition

The idea of your television — or any other device, for that matter — becoming a brick after you’ve legitimately purchased it is a scary proposition. The last thing you’d ever want to happen is to sit down to watch your favorite show or sporting event only to find that the massive black rectangle in your living room will remain that — a massive black rectangle. Or, worse, your TV could fire up and say something like: “This TV has been disabled due to suspected theft. Have a nice day.”

As more devices rely on internet connectivity, we must welcome the ability to pull the plug.

That’s a pretty unlikely scenario. For one thing, it appears as though the Television Block Function has been pretty narrowly utilized in this case, with Samsung saying that it “has activated TV Block on all Samsung Television sets looted from our Cato Ridge distribution center in (the KwaZulu-Natal province of South Africa) since the 11th of July 2021.” Not TVs sold at retail, but TVs stolen from a warehouse before they could be sold. It knows the serial numbers.

Also limiting the potential misuse of TV Block is the way Samsung defines the security feature in the first place. It’s a “solution that detects if Samsung TV units have been unduly activated, and ensures that the television sets can only be used by the rightful owners with a valid proof of purchase.” The next sentence makes it even more clear: “The aim of the technology is to mitigate against the creation of secondary markets linked to the sale of illegal goods, both in South Africa and beyond its borders.”

A narrowly tailored wholesale security measure isn’t the same as consumer-level DRM (digital rights management).

In other words, if you’ve legitimately purchased the TV from a store, and it’s been activated, you should be good to go. If it’s been stolen before it was sold, there’s a decent chance Samsung’s going to flip the kill switch.

That won’t completely stop the black-market sales, of course. That’s a cat-and-mouse game that’s never, ever going to end. Samsung knows that, and thieves know that. But it’ll slow them down, and allow Samsung to write off thefts such as this that much more easily. It’s really not meant as a means to brick your TV should someone come into your house and rip it off your wall.

A responsible feature

There’s also an argument to be made that kill switches aren’t just a good thing to have — they’re a responsible feature and something that we should actually welcome. As more and more devices become that much more connected and dependent on the internet, there are exponentially more avenues for misuse. The scale of the Internet of Things already is pretty unfathomable, and that growth isn’t going to slow any time soon.

We’ve become accustomed to app stores being able to remotely disable or uninstall individual applications should they prove to be harmful. Service providers like Google and Apple and others can disable your account, if need be. The idea of remotely bricking your phone or your TV or your fridge or even your car, should they be used for ill, isn’t that far-fetched. It’d be an extreme measure, for sure, and not something anyone should take lightly, from the manufacturers to the consumers, and especially regulators. There are real-time privacy concerns, and real-time accountability issues, and this is something that deserves to be more than a clause buried deep within the Terms of Service.

But look at it from the manufacturer’s side. Should a fleet of televisions one day be turned into a botnet, or if the Hollywood fantasy of machines rising up against humanity should ever play out, wouldn’t you like the ability to shut things down?

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