Samsung vows to remotely brick stolen TVs

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Having more or less every appliance in your home constantly connected to global interconnected networks can enable some remarkable tools. And not just tools for the consumer: device manufactures are finding themselves able to exercise more and more control over the things they sell after the sale is made. The latest example is a batch of Samsung TVs, which the company says it will remotely disable after they were stolen from a warehouse.

“Samsung Supports Retailers Affected By Looting,” reads the headline atop Samsung’s official press release in Johannesburg, South Africa earlier this month. It describes televisions “obtained by users through unlawful means,” with a specific mention of sets stolen from the Cato Ridge distribution center since July. The company went on to say that the serial numbers of the stolen TVs had been recorded. If any of them connect to the internet and to Samsung’s servers, they’ll be remotely disabled, all electronic functions completely blocked.

Samsung’s report says that this remote bricking tool is “pre-loaded on all Samsung TV products,” and that this system was being put in place in South Africa and “beyond its borders.” In the event of a legitimate customer being accidentally bricked, they can submit a proof of purchase to a Samsung email address to get their purchase (anywhere from a few hundred to several thousand dollars) reinstated.

The implication here is disturbing to customer rights activists. What if Samsung decides your TV is stolen and you can’t convince them otherwise? What if that decision is made, say, after someone sells you their entirely legitimate TV on a secondary market, or you received it as a gift and the giver doesn’t have particularly good record-keeping skills? While discouraging thieves is all to the good, it’s easy to see how real customers shut down by an overzealous security measure would be much more upset than a burglar who’s suddenly got a useless lump of glass and plastic that they didn’t pay for anyway.

All that being said: this sort of hyper-connected anti-theft measure is fast becoming the norm instead of the exception. Carriers lock out stolen phones, making them all but useless (that’s why it’s very hard to sell a smartphone to a pawn shop). Teslas and other connected cars can be remotely disabled, and even located, if they’re marked stolen. With tools like Find My Device on Android and Find My iPhone on iOS, users can even remotely lock out their own devices.

But it’s easy to see why having that control so explicitly in the hands of the manufacturer, and indeed, said manufacturer celebrating its ability to brick devices in a press release, could be disturbing. Many online commenters have already said this will discourage them from buying a Samsung television in future. If you’ve bought a Samsung TV (from a store, not the back of a truck) and you’re not keen on Samsung having a remote kill switch, you can avoid this fate by using it as a “dumb” screen, and never connecting it to the internet to take advantage of its smart features.

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