Digital Minefield

Why The Machines Are Winning

Vampires To Overlords, Part One


Yes, vampires. Or, if you prefer the less dramatic term, standby power. Many decades ago, when television screens were bulky CRTs (cathode ray tubes), they took a long time to warm up. Then it was decided to keep some power always on, enabling quicker startups. This feature was called “instant on.”

This standby power mode quickly acquired vampire status because leaking of electricity was akin to continual draining, not of blood, but of electricity. TVs with “instant on” were soon followed by VCRs, and then cable boxes—always using power. How much? It’s estimated to be around 10 percent of total residential electrical consumption.

Now, there are even more vampire devices in your house. Count the DC power adaptors, you know, those bricks powering everything from toothbrushes to external hard drives. While you’re counting, touch them to remind yourself that if it’s warm, it’s on. Oh, did I forget to mention the risk of fire from devices that are always on?

However, fire may not be the biggest risk. Every new device inherits the concept of continuous power. For example, there is no way to turn off a computer. Not the sleep or hibernate mode, the on/off switch on the box does not completely shut it off. If your computer is connected to the Internet, then it can be turned on (and used) remotely—unless you know the settings to prevent it.

Today’s vampire devices are no longer concerned with quick startup. Rather they want power to stay connected to their makers (of hardware and software). But if these devices are accessible to their makers, then they are also accessible to their destroyers, the hackers.

For many decades, I’ve controlled power to my computers by turning them off using a switched wall socket. This principle is common to those concerned with machines taking over. How often have you heard it said that we can prevent a takeover because we can always pull the plug. We believed this—but is it still true?

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