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Portables Hardware Your Rights Online

Cellular Repo Man 253

Posted by kdawson
from the new-low-for-crippleware dept.
LateNiteTV sends in news of a "kill pill" from LM Ericsson AB that a wireless carrier could use to remotely disable a subsidized netbook if the customer doesn't pay the monthly bill or cancels their credit card. "...the Swedish company that makes many of the modems that go into laptops announced Tuesday that its new modem will deal with [the nonpayment] issue by including a feature that's virtually a wireless repo man. If the carrier has the stomach to do so, it can send a signal that completely disables the computer, making it impossible to turn on. ... Laptop makers that use Ericsson modules include LG Electronics Inc., Dell Inc., Toshiba Corp., and Lenovo." The feature could also be used to lock thieves out of the data on a stolen laptop.
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Cellular Repo Man

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  • by DrMrLordX (559371) on Tuesday March 31, 2009 @06:00PM (#27409439)

    We have had several used car lots around here that will basically do the same thing: if you don't make your weekly or monthly payments, they send a signal to a device attached to the starter and the car won't start.

    At least with the car, eventually you pay it off so that little cloud is no longer hanging over your head unless some idiot at the lot mistakes you for being in non-payment and kills your starter. With one of these notebooks, you'll always have that threat looming that your notebook will shut down if someone steals your only CC and you have to cancel it or what not at the wrong time in the billing cycle.

    One would hope nobody involved would be so draconian but you never know.

    • by c6gunner (950153)

      With one of these notebooks, you'll always have that threat looming that your notebook will shut down if someone steals your only CC and you have to cancel it or what not at the wrong time in the billing cycle.

      I would assume that there would be a grace period, and that they'd try to contact you fist. That's just good business sense. Even the mafia won't off-you if you're 5 minutes late on your payments - they'll send someone around to have a chat with you, first.

    • by billcopc (196330)

      Much like the car starter, this "kill chip" can and will be circumvented.

      Perhaps not surprisingly, the kind of people who default on small payment are often the same kind of people who hang out with shady people. What? Did you think deadbeats lived in caves ?

  • by wed128 (722152) <woodrowdouglass@g[ ]l.com ['mai' in gap]> on Tuesday March 31, 2009 @06:00PM (#27409443)

    A theif could easily take out the hard drive and read it using another device, no? you are locking a theif out of a laptop, not the data within.

    • by Darkness404 (1287218) on Tuesday March 31, 2009 @06:04PM (#27409523)
      ...But you assume that most thieves actually know something about computers. A lot couldn't care less about the data, they just want to sell the nice hardware. Sure, some actually know a thing about computers, but your typical thief doesn't really care about the HD, they just want to sell it to a pawn shop or a streetcorner for some quick cash.
    • Presumably, these new netbooks also have a strangely oily layer of orange material inside attached to the remote kill switch.

      So whatever you do, don't cut the red wire.

    • by LoRdTAW (99712) on Tuesday March 31, 2009 @06:15PM (#27409663)

      Most thefts aren't data thefts or other espionage related thefts. I would wager most notebook (and other electronic gadget) thefts are for profit thefts. A thief will swipe you laptop and try to hock it at a pawn shop or other crooked store that fronts stolen goods. Too many people start thinking "James Bond" without thinking in a more real world sense. Sure there are espionage related thefts but most electronic gadgetry thefts are by desperate individuals looking for fast cash. And those thieves are often junkies looking for a fix and will steal anything of value to get it.

      Besides the article is talking about disabling notebooks that are subsidized by wireless broadband plans in which the customer stops paying for. Not stolen notebooks.

    • A theif could easily take out the hard drive and read it using another device, no? you are locking a theif out of a laptop, not the data within.

      You could design a proprietary drive that only functions within that laptop and should anyone remove the drive there would be a fail safe that erases the data or locks the data until it is reattached to the original laptop.

      Not sure if the technology is possible for something like this (I'm a comedy writer for a living, no technical experience) but I'm sure you could prevent people from accessing a drive somehow.

      • by Lehk228 (705449) on Tuesday March 31, 2009 @06:21PM (#27409721) Journal
        wouldn't it be easier to encrypt the drive and have the wireless kill system hold the key?
      • by HTH NE1 (675604)

        You could design a proprietary drive that only functions within that laptop

        That's a lot of R&D to put into proprietary interfaces when whole-disk encryption with off-the-shelf components is a lot easier to deploy.

        • That's a lot of R&D to put into proprietary interfaces when whole-disk encryption with off-the-shelf components is a lot easier to deploy.

          Yet Microsoft put the R&D into the Xbox 360 game console's proprietary hard drive interface.

          • by HTH NE1 (675604)

            Yet Microsoft put the R&D into the Xbox 360 game console's proprietary hard drive interface.

            Microsoft is Microsoft. A rent-to-own company is not Microsoft.

            • No, they're a "buy it and use it the way we tell you, you own nothing" company. Otherwise they wouldn't have EULAs on all their software and hardware.

          • by haroldK (96625)

            Yet Microsoft put the R&D into the Xbox 360 game console's proprietary hard drive interface.

            Their hard drive interface is strictly SATA. The drive has the drive model and serial numbers written to sectors 16-22 signed by MS. If those sectors don't match what the drive firmware reports, the Xbox doesn't report the drive as attached. You can pull the drive out of the MS casing and use it just like any other 2.5" SATA drive, but unless you make a backup of sectors 16-22 on the drive, you're not going to get the Xbox to recognize it again.

            I'm guessing it took MS about 10 minutes to come up wi

      • by mlts (1038732) *

        Bitlocker does exactly this, assuming the laptop has a TPM chip. Once enabled and the recovery key saved somewhere secure, the laptop boots, grabs the volume key from the TPM and goes about its business without needing a password. Should the drive be yanked and read from another machine, it will be encrypted and useless without the recovery key.

      • by dgatwood (11270)

        Just make sure you provide a copy of the crypto key to the legitimate owner in case the motherboard fails outright.... That would really suck to lose all your data merely because your motherboard blew a couple of filter caps.

    • by Z00L00K (682162)

      Which is why you should use Truecrypt on your laptop if you possess sensitive data.

      B.t.w. Since it was a reference to LM Ericsson AB, it has a April's fools taste of the whole thing.

  • by Walpurgiss (723989) on Tuesday March 31, 2009 @06:02PM (#27409473)
    If a thief were really after your data, it'd be pretty trivial to remove the hard drive from the laptop, and just have to worry about encryption.

    This feature won't help protect your data really, just make laptop itself a paperweight.
  • by Locke2005 (849178) on Tuesday March 31, 2009 @06:02PM (#27409477)
    Don't sell hardware by tying it to a subscription! You want to provide financing, fine. But stop trying to convince people that a $500 computer should be free, but it makes sense to spend $100/month for a communications link.
    • by MightyYar (622222)

      Just curious... why? It seems to be what the market demands.

      Don't get me wrong - I would jump at the chance to get a non-subsidized phone/data plan, but I am more angry at the ignorant masses than at the companies fulfilling their desires.

      • by TheSpoom (715771) *

        Morality always trumps "what the market demands" for me.

        I can't control other people, but I wouldn't run a business like this simply because it seems wrong.

        • by MightyYar (622222)

          Morality always trumps "what the market demands" for me.

          That's an interesting perspective - I never would have considered cell phone pricing to be a moral issue. If I thought that they were taking advantage of people, I'd probably agree with you... but if you look at the huge number of companies out there who offer some kind of financing as part of their pricing, it's clear that most people look at monthly payment rather than total cost. Even cars are advertised by their monthly payment, and they are a whole order of magnitude more expensive than cell phone plan

          • by TheSpoom (715771) *

            Financing is different. As I understand it, this is a rental tied to a contract binding the user to continue to pay for an unrelated service.

            In the former case, you own something. In the latter, you do not.

      • by internewt (640704) on Tuesday March 31, 2009 @06:53PM (#27410129) Journal

        Just curious... why? It seems to be what the market demands.

        Don't get me wrong - I would jump at the chance to get a non-subsidized phone/data plan, but I am more angry at the ignorant masses than at the companies fulfilling their desires.

        In markets like mobile telecoms there are only a few big players, so the market gets offered what the players want to offer, not necessarily what the customers want. Obviously collusion is illegal, but "singing from the same hymn sheet" isn't.

        The utter cluelessness of most customers when it comes to computers and tech in general doesn't help much either. I guess this could be viewed as "what the market demands" though.

        I'm sure it's a bit of both, plus some more.

        • by MightyYar (622222)

          In markets like mobile telecoms there are only a few big players

          I'd agree except that - unless my memory is playing tricks on me - the subsidized phones started way back when there were dozens of carriers serving various regions of the US. It took off not because of carrier greed, but because consumers were more willing to sign up with little initial outlay.

          • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

            by Brickwall (985910)
            I'd agree except that - unless my memory is playing tricks on me - the subsidized phones started way back when there were dozens of carriers serving various regions of the US. It took off not because of carrier greed, but because consumers were more willing to sign up with little initial outlay.

            It was a bit of both, actually. The rural carriers especially were interested in grabbing fat roaming fees ($5-6 a minute was not uncommon!), which is why the lawyers had a field day doing cookie cutter cellular a

        • by Brickwall (985910)
          Oh, this is utter balderdash. I worked for a large cell phone provider in Canada, and we were always scrambling to adjust our billing plans to keep up with market demands for different plans for different needs. (The fact that our billing system was provided by Cincinnati Bell, and we didn't have source code meant a minimum 12-week turnaround for the simplest changes didn't help.)

          On the other hand, asking customers what new features they wanted was an exercise in futility. First, more than half didn't kno

    • by Tanman (90298)

      Why should they stop trying to convince people that $60/mo makes sense? Fact is that after the computer is paid, people will still be paying $60 a month. After owning the computer and internet access for 4 years, not only have they recouped the price of the system, but they've recouped it twice over.

      Computer: $400
      Internet Access $30/mo (normally)

      At $60/mo, the phone company needs 14 months to repay the price of the computer (which, by the way, is probably tax deductible as a business expense anyway since

      • by tepples (727027)

        Computer: $400
        Internet Access $30/mo (normally)

        Where? In Fort Wayne, Indiana, United States, a normal data-only plan from Centennial or AT&T or Verizon without a ridiculously low cap (e.g. 0.1 GB/mo) costs $60 per month.

        • Wow, sucks to be you...

          It's not nearly that bad in Canada. [www.shaw.ca]

          • I'd say he was referring to wireless... If you want regular internet in canada get Teksavvy http://tinyurl.com/6xne5a [tinyurl.com] (zomg 1st time i used ubiquity on /. to tinyurl something) not shaw :S.... double the cap for the same price (though slower dl). I find dl speed doesn't matter a whole lot since you won't cap dl speed without upload to match. Anyways pretty much no sites aside from google come in at 2MB/s. AND teksavvy is one of the few isps in canada fighting against all the internet bs going on lately.
        • by Zerth (26112)

          In Ohio Verizon only sticks it to you for $30/month on an "unlimited"(really 5GB) plan.

    • So the solution is for you to buy a computer that fits your needs (subscription-free) and people who want a subsidized computer to buy one with their data plan. I fail to see the issue here unless you'll no longer be able to order a laptop without a subscription.

  • by GPLDAN (732269) on Tuesday March 31, 2009 @06:04PM (#27409517)
    How much fun will it be when the wireless carrier fires Crazy Stu, the wacky UNIX sysadmin with the penchant for conspiracy theories and bad dental health.

    When HR comes around to fire Stu, he leaves his timebomb in place. The one that fires out the kill message to hundreds - nay - thousands of customers - and disables their leased laptops all at once.

    What a day that will be.
    • by causality (777677) on Tuesday March 31, 2009 @06:33PM (#27409821)

      How much fun will it be when the wireless carrier fires Crazy Stu, the wacky UNIX sysadmin with the penchant for conspiracy theories and bad dental health. When HR comes around to fire Stu, he leaves his timebomb in place. The one that fires out the kill message to hundreds - nay - thousands of customers - and disables their leased laptops all at once. What a day that will be.

      I hope it does not come to that, but should that happen anyway, in a way I would be grateful. It is unfortunate that things like that often have to happen before people are willing to question whether what they were doing was a good idea. My opinion is that anything which is needlessly centralized and open to this sort of vulnerability is a bad idea, especially when there are already established ways to deal with the problem this intends to solve. I consider the likelihood of such an exploit occurring to be irrelevant; there would be no such possibility at all if this were the correct solution.

      We are talking about financers and lenders, or those who do something similar by using long-term contracts to subsidize what would otherwise be an up-front cost. It's a form of credit because it takes time to become profitable and it depends on the other party not defaulting. If such people want to extend credit to those who are bad risks, that is the original problem and an improved "repo man" does nothing to solve it. It only addresses the symptoms of the original problem.

      For people who default on a loan or a contract, this pseudo-solution is essentially an alternative to taking them to court. It means that the lender can just remotely disable the equipment that was not paid for without having to use any sort of due process. It is thus an extra-legal power that did not previously exist, and is rightfully called a power grab. The entire point of the court system is that both sides can make their case. If the money required to bring a lawsuit against a large corporation already makes this difficult for the average person to pursue, taking the courts entirely out of the equation makes it impossible. This is not a good precedent. If this catches on, it will become increasingly difficult to buy a cell phone or perhaps a laptop without agreeing to allow it.

      It's amazing to me that we will do almost anything, come up with nearly any clever solution, go to any effort, to avoid directly addressing the actual cause of our problems. It's as though we feel threatened by the prospect, or inadequate at having failed to realize its simplicity. This is why we live in a superficial society. This is also why there are so many bad precedents which seem inevitable although they did not need to be that way at all.

    • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

      by Wrath0fb0b (302444)

      When HR comes around to fire Stu, he leaves his timebomb in place. The one that fires out the kill message to hundreds - nay - thousands of customers - and disables their leased laptops all at once.

      Later that day, the company sues Stu for malicious destruction of property, lost business revenue, failure to fulfill a duty of care (remember, employees are actually expect to work for their employer, not against them). A few hours later, an injunction will issue requiring Stu to return the computer network to the state before he left pending further hearings. Stu will either comply or face escalating sanctions and then jail time until he complies with the court order (which the company is entitled to as a

      • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

        by TheSpoom (715771) *

        Unfortunately, by the time Stu has run his timebomb, Stu has also had fractions of a cent transferred to a bank account in the Caymans and is now living somewhere in the Bahamas under the pseudonym Leonard Stumonias, Esquire.

      • by iYk6 (1425255)

        When HR comes around to fire Stu, he leaves his timebomb in place. The one that fires out the kill message to hundreds - nay - thousands of customers - and disables their leased laptops all at once.

        Later that day, the company sues Stu for malicious destruction of property, lost business revenue, failure to fulfill a duty of care (remember, employees are actually expect to work for their employer, not against them).

        Or Stu never gets caught, because he adequetely covered his tracks. Either way, Stu doesn't even have enough money to pay the company for damages.

        The company will apologize profusely, give everyone a free week of service (maybe a month, depending on how the PR department sees this)

        Yeah right. The customers would be lucky if the service provider gave you a number you could call to get a refund credited to your bill for the 2 days you were out of service. The phone waiting time will be 45 mins, the refund will be $3, and less than 10% of all customers will go through the hassle.

        I like your idea of giving customers a free week, and it would pr

  • He'll just rip the still beating heart from your chest!

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CMP2dvGFUlk&fmt=18 [youtube.com]

  • This would make a great prank malware target. But the days of fun malware seem to be over, it's all about the Benjamins now...
    • Re: (Score:2, Interesting)

      by Nitage (1010087)
      That's definitely something criminals could exploit - knock out 1 in 1000 laptops, then "pay us $X thousand dollars, or all the laptops you gave away brick". A physical DOS attack. Think how much that could cost a company in terms of reputation and lost buisness, not to mention the inevitable lawsuits. For that reason alone I think this is an amazingly stupid idea.
  • I predict (Score:5, Insightful)

    by taustin (171655) on Tuesday March 31, 2009 @06:16PM (#27409677) Homepage Journal

    that within 5 minutes of the sale of the first such laptop, there will be 1,080,456 web sites with detailed, step by step instructions (with screen shots) on how to disable the feature, and at least ten times as many with instructions on how to physically remove the wireless moden.

    And ten seconds after that, every single one of them will be slashdotted.

    • Re:I predict (Score:4, Interesting)

      by cstdenis (1118589) on Tuesday March 31, 2009 @06:41PM (#27409941)

      And another 5 minutes later there will be instructions on how to send the kill signal to any laptop. Have fun bricking the laptops of anyone you don't like.

      • Re: (Score:2, Interesting)

        by fishbowl (7759)

        "Have fun bricking the laptops of anyone you don't like."

        It's the only thing I thought about when I read the summary. The target isn't "bricking the laptops", it's permanently destroying that company's reputation. Their competitors are as motivated to crack this as anybody else.

    • And people offering that service for a fee, as they did with PS1/2 chips.

  • I'm not sure I'm clear on how they want this to work. Is it purely software or will the thing physically interrupt the power supply or will it do something to the BIOS? There's weaknesses and vulnerabilities to all three. Depending on how they do it, you could disable any software solution they use or just boot to Knoppix off a DVD and keep surfing the web and doing whatever :-) And if it's a hardware interrupt, crack it open and get out the soldering iron or hack saw. Or just take out the stupid part t
  • The list of companies to NOT do business with continues to grow.

    Speak with your dollars, refuse to purchase devices from companies that have these modems installed, and these companies will no longer install them. Simple as that.

    The next step is legislation that PRECLUDES companies from disabling purchased products, IN ANY WAY, SHAPE OR FORM. Simply put, command-destruct/self-destruct functions should be illegal in ANY product. Legislation wouldn't be needed if everyone KNEW what these asshole companies do,

    • by couchslug (175151)

      "Simply put, command-destruct/self-destruct functions should be illegal in ANY product."

      Future NASA launch safety officers will be equipped with a Really Large Catchers Mitt.

    • The next step is legislation that PRECLUDES companies from disabling purchased products, IN ANY WAY, SHAPE OR FORM. Simply put, command-destruct/self-destruct functions should be illegal in ANY product. Legislation wouldn't be needed if everyone KNEW what these asshole companies do, but that is not going to happen since they(the manufacturers/sellers) will ALWAYS try to hide the fact of "limited ownership" until after purchase(and even after)

      Yes, let's support the nanny state! Why should it be illegal for me to purchase this, or for me to produce this, because you may personally disagree with it? If the remote disable is one way to lower the cost of my next laptop (and one with cellular Internet to boot), I might go for it. If one of us doesn't hold to our end of the contract (if they cut off my service), that is what the government is there to protect.

  • by sehlat (180760) on Tuesday March 31, 2009 @06:27PM (#27409787)

    The RIAA/MPAA will be requiring such a capability as part of any "three-strikes" legislation. That will include felony charges for tampering with the hardware that makes the kill switch possible.

    • And then requiring it of all computers sold. Trusted Computing 2.0

    • They call it "Son of Fritz Chip"...
    • I would like to believe that you are merely joking, but after the DMCA (complete with numerous subsequent abuses) and know with Joe Biden and the RIAA lawyers in the driver seat over at the Department of Justice I definitely wouln't put that past them. I don't like Biden, I don't like his RIAA friends, and I don't trust any of them. IMHO, Obama was wrong to approve the RIAA all-star team for the Department of Justice and that decision could cost him big time in the next election with the young tech savvy cr
  • 911? (Score:5, Informative)

    by jgtg32a (1173373) on Tuesday March 31, 2009 @06:37PM (#27409873)
    I was under the impression that all cell phones are required to be able to make 911 calls
    • Re: (Score:2, Informative)

      by tagno25 (1518033)
      These are NOT cell phones, they are netbooks with cellular data connections.
      • These are NOT cell phones, they are netbooks with cellular data connections.

        Then wouldn't all low-cost subnotebooks with cellular data connections be required to be able to make 911 calls over SIP?

    • by nurb432 (527695)

      Doesn't apply to a laptop.

  • by chill (34294)

    On the Dell Mini 9 I opened the other day to add RAM, the 3G modem was a miniPCI card.

    1. Buy subsidized netbook.
    2. Remove miniPCI card modem
    3. Cancel credit card
    4. Resell netbook at markup.
    5. Profit!

    A few more steps than the Gnomes, but it works.

  • Yeah because some pimple-faced kid isn't going to get bored and start killing peoples netbooks for fun.

    This is an early April Fools day joke right ?
  • How about just unhooking the cellular antenna / card so the system can't get the shut off code it's no loss as you are not paying for the data link and getting no data over it anyways.

  • by gillbates (106458) on Tuesday March 31, 2009 @11:00PM (#27411999) Homepage Journal

    Not that I'd buy one of these, but suppose, for example, that I do. And suppose, furthermore, that because of some screwup with my bank, or human error (oops, transposed two CC digits!), my bill doesn't get paid.

    I'm charging clients $100 an *hour*. If you disable my laptop for even a single 8 hour day, you owe *me* money.

    Did they think of that? Did it occur to them that if this functionality *accidentally* gets tripped, the lawsuit could easily erase not just the profit on the modem and the service, but the laptop as well?

    Or, to put it another way: why would someone sell a laptop (on contract) to someone who can't afford a cellphone?

It was kinda like stuffing the wrong card in a computer, when you're stickin' those artificial stimulants in your arm. -- Dion, noted computer scientist

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