One Laptop Per Child Has Remote Kill Switch Should Anyone Try To Resell One On eBay

from the seems-a-bit-extreme dept

We’ve been anything but convinced by the “One Laptop Per Child” project that’s been going on for quite some time. While it seems like a nice idea, past attempts at very similar projects have all failed miserably, throwing away plenty of money that could have gone towards more useful projects to help alleviate poverty or improve living conditions in the third world. Still, it seems like the OLPC campaign certainly gets a ton of press — but it seems like there are a few oddities with the project. Petréa Mitchell writes in noting that at the end of the latest Reuters puff piece on the devices, someone involved in the project notes that to keep these devices off the black market, the devices can be remotely shut down by project organizers. That seems both pointless and silly. If the recipients of the devices find that they can be better off selling such a device for food or shelter, why shouldn’t they? However, as Mitchell asks, “Who exactly has the power to do this? How well is this backdoor guarded? What else is it used for? Is it possible to reactivate the computer (in which case the black marketeers are bound to figure out how to do it themselves)? Are the software and data destroyed (in which case the hardware will still be worth something)? If even the hardware is essentially wrecked, then what do they do if there’s a mistaken deactivation?” Would be nice to know some of the answers.

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Comments on “One Laptop Per Child Has Remote Kill Switch Should Anyone Try To Resell One On eBay”

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GeneralFault says:

Re: I don't get it...

By flashing the bios or any other IC, the hardware can be rendered basicly usless. With only a little bit more sophisitication (and even by mistake once in a while), the flash can disable further flashing attempts. It would take an EE degree, a new chip and soldering gear to re-enable the hardware. For 100$ per unit, such a flash would for all intents and purposes render the entire laptop useless.

Morgan (user link) says:

Project's Origins

The best is reading where the idea was spawned, when Negroponte shared some laptops with some families in Cambodia. They used them as LIGHTS. They still would ike to have LIGHTS. Man this whole thing is annoying.

The kill switch is just dumb– a clever black marketer will overcome it, and the only potential person hurt is the poor student that accidentally and irretrievably gets shut down by it.

Glad Thailand backed out of the whole thing, they decided to go ahead and go with tried and true BOOKS. If I’d actually learned the contents of even just a few books in school I could’ve skipped college altogether. I suspect that it wasn’t simply the lack of a laptop keeping me from reaching the sky.

Jamie says:

This news will kill the project if true

All along this project has seemed to more of a political statement than anything that will really help developing countries.
I really hate it when charity organizations spend money to “help” the third world, but put so many restrictions on their help, that few people who want to improve their life will get involved. The attitude that says, “We are more developed than you and know better than you. So you can’t be trusted with any real decisions.” is just stupid.
I understand that they don’t want the machines sold on Ebay, but by putting a kill switch in the PC, you are telling people you don’t trust them.
Yes, I’m giving you this great tool, but you might mess it up, or do something I don’t want you to do with it because you are just a stupid third worlder. So I’m keeping control of it. Oh yeah, people are just going to line up for that wonderful privilege.

Nick D (profile) says:

This is so damn stupid. This could render the entire project useless, stupid, dead in the water. This means, that when the OLPC Project, given the choice of: inconveniencing a poor child OR help a black market seller turn a profit, they would rather inconvenience a poor child. Now how is that for fulfilling this mission!?! More like “One Technical Headache Per Child” on the other side of the digital divide. Blackmarket sales are going to happen no matter what. I think they would be better off ignoring the fact that blackmarket sales will may happen on concentrate more on the indented users experience.

Tashi says:

It is a good idea. In fact I think it’s desperately needed. But I agree their are other issues that need to be addressed in terms of what they need. A laptop for most is a luxury. If your hierarchy of needs suggest food and shelter.. basic things for survival, then a laptop is a mute point, unless it can address the economic need. I know some families in SE Asia for instance too poor to afford a school uniform for school let alone the laptop. Instead of one laptop per child, one laptop per village, or something similar seems more applicable. Cell phones are making exciting and interesting inroads into poor areas for business use. I’ve heard of whole communities using one cell phone for business use, keeping in touch with relatives in other areas etc. Micro lending is another entity that serves the economic needs so other things can follow. So for truly making a serious attempt at eliminating poverty you have to address the economics as well as education. I think the question is, does education come before economics?

I will say this for the project. The extreme poor have been out the loop for a long time. I think getting them online and part of the global community, giving them a voice is a good idea. I don’t believe OLPC is a half assed project. It’s been on the table a long time and they have a lot of data to work from to make it work. I hope it succeeds.

mjr says:

Once again you've missed the point

Once again you’ve missed the point, the remote shutdown is not for kids in trying to sell their laptops on ebay. It’s an anti-theft measure. No one wants to see kids getting the crap kicked out of them to steal their laptops.

No one knows for sure if this will work or not but it’s definitely worth a try. Education is the key to eliminating poverty, and I don’t mean learning how to use an M$ desktop.

Your comments sound almost as lame as the comments when the first PCs kts were being made. Who would want a computer at home.

Time will tell.

John Boyer says:

The Key to ending poverty

Education and free laptops have nothing to do with ending poverty, read The Mystery of Capital, by Hernando De Soto (yes that’s his name).
It’s all about private property rights, the rule of law, and a Free Market. Giving laptops away will feel good, but until people can prove that they safely own their property and then leverage that for a better life, they will remain poor.
Until third world governments recognize and protect individual rights, there will be no progress. And as long as western nations degrade the same rights, we will continue to decline.

AMP says:

Re: The Key to ending poverty

RE: “Education and free laptops have nothing to do with ending poverty, read The Mystery of Capital”
In order for people to read and apply the principles of this book, or any book for that matter, they need to be educated to do so. To state that education has nothing to do with ending poverty and in the same breath tell people to read a book, is a little contradictory. I agree on the laptop part. But how do you expect poverty stricken people to apply the principles of economics w/out an education?

johnboy says:

Re: Re: The Key to ending poverty

“To state that education has nothing to do with ending poverty and in the same breath tell people to read a book, is a little contradictory.” Ha, good point, I didn’t catch my own irony. I don’t mean the poor people should read the book, they are too busy trying to eat. I meant the people who think giving away laptops will help. As far as education goes, The principles of a free market don’t require much education to excercise. Education is good, so are free laptops (mmm lights). These things pale in comparison to the importance of rights of individuals to live in a free market.
A little aside, this is a great quote: “Why are you so eager to come to America?” He replied, “Because I really want to live in a country where the poor people are fat.”

Petréa Mitchell says:

Found it!

After giving up trying to find the details, I tripped over them here (scroll down to 8.19, line 968).

The gist: every laptop calls home periodically and checks its country’s master database to see whether it’s been marked stolen. If it is, or if it can’t contact the database within a certain longish period of time, it locks itself, leaving the software and hardware otherwise intact. So, three obvious ways of getting around this occur to me:

1. Buy laptops in remote areas and hope the news never makes it back to the right people at the Ministry of Education or national equivalent.

2. Send your buddy at the ministry a small consideration in exchange for making sure the laptop doesn’t get marked stolen, or for providing an activation key.

3. Work out a way to read the manufacturing data and reverse-engineer activation keys.

For the busy black marketeer, #2 seems like the best bet.

Dennis Crow says:


What would be ideal is for this story to be fake, inspiring cheaters and misanthropes no end of happy playing with trying to mess it up, all to no avail.
Why be a hater? Why don’t you think up something to add to OLPC to make it an even better resource? I have. If you think that creating something that could bring revolutionary digital game based learning technology to the entire world for next to nothing isn’t worth failing more than a few times, you just don’t get it. Quit pretending you have an opinion worth expressing.
Get on it or get off it!

Xiera says:


I would be willing to bet this is what we call an “empty threat”.

Firstly, in order to remotely-anything, there would need to be an active connection to some network. Granted, this can be done easily using satellites (ie, GPS), but that would be very costly.

Secondly, it would take a matter of months (weeks, even) before people find a way around the problem.

Thirdly, where does fair use come into play in this situation? As Mike asks, what if selling it makes them better off, wouldn’t that be a good thing?

And as a final point, why is it so bad that people other than the intended target receive the computers? Is someone going to buy and hoard all the computers? What would they stand to gain? From what I understand, the computers wouldn’t be that incredibly powerful.

The only claim I can see is that it might violate certain re-selling agreements, but wouldn’t selling a used system on e-bay fall into the same category (don’t get any ideas)?

This is another one of those “who gave you the right to make decisions for us?” situations, very similar to people questioning the “low” wages of sweatshop workers who make more than most of their peers (ignoring the working conditions). Get over it: you give a gift knowing there’s a chance that the recipient will not use it, but will rather attempt to get some monetary value for it.

Norm says:

Details of the XO's anti-theft peventions

Answers? I may have some for you! Sorry about the insanely long post! All of this information has been taken from;a=blob;hb=HEAD;f=bitfrost.txt
Please excuse any misinterpretations.

Each XO has s serial number (SN) and a UUID. The serial number is a random integer and the UUID is a random 32 byte ASCII code. The schools (who supposedly handle the distribution to the children) have an “activation server”. Each country receives a batch of activation codes on-demand which are then given to the schools. Each country is in control of its own master activation server. (There is no world-wide master activation server)

The activation itself happens automatically when powered up or can be manually entered. Each XO will periodically “call home” to the country’s activation server. This call home validates that the laptop isn’t stolen and gives it a lease time for which the laptop is allwoed to operate. This lease is set by the country’s activation server. The default lease time is 21 days, although they mention 3 months as a solution to intemitten internet access. The lease can also be extended by the school via a USD drive sent to the school from the country.

The laptop can be reactivated by the same method as activation. Basically, if that laptop is removed from the stolen list then it will reactivate. I’m not sure about the state of any stored data. (I would hope it is kept)

Note that this call all be circumvented by an OLPC developer key, which can be obtained form OLPC. A developer key is unique to each laptop. I don’t know what kind of protections are in place for this process.

As far as flashing the BIOS, without a developer key, the BIOS cannot be flashed unless the BIOS image is signed by OLPC.

Crap, I have to get back to work …

Petréa Mitchell says:

Re: Details of the XO's anti-theft peventions

I just stumbled over that myself earlier today, but my comment trying to post it got flagged as spam 🙁

It seems like the best way to get around this, for a busy black marketeer, is to send a little present to your buddy at the Ministry of Education or national equivalent in exchange for the activation key for the laptop you just stole.

If you like a bigger challenge, you could also try working out how to read the manufacturing data fight off the chip and generate your own activation keys. And if you’re totally incompetent and have no connections, you can always try getting your laptops from only the remotest districts, where word about stolen laptops may never get back to the people maintaining the registry (or at least it’s a good bet it won’t before you resell them).

b says:

“Bender says the laptops can be remotely shut down to prevent them being sold in black markets.”

So at what point does Bender know when the laptop is on the black market? Does the kid have to key in some secret code every 2 days to keep it going, one that would likely go with the laptop to the black market?
Is there some sort of GPS card inside the laptop that reports its location, shutting it down when the kid makes the weekly trip with the family to the City?
A fingerprint recognizer, so the child’s digit AND laptop will be stolen at the same time?
Does the digital camera compile pictures of the original user’s face and then crap out when his friend comes over to use it?

Lawrman says:

Do some more research TechDirt

Listen… they’re not wasting the money, because they will inevitably be profitable. THEY ARE NOT GIVING THE LAPTOPS AWAY! They are finding a way to produce laptops for under 100 bucks so they can be sold for just that, and after mass manufacture they will be making money off them. I live in suburbia, and I can tell you for damn sure that no matter how poor a school system is, they could greatly benefit from this project. These computers aren’t being given to literally every child…

publius says:

Poor vs. Poorest

We are accustomed to assume that all poor countries are equally poor and that they are all literally dirt poor. This is a dangerous assumption. The poorest countries have to seek shelter, water and food everyday. Education is not nearly as important to them as finding those basics.

OLPC concedes that their laptops are not intended for the poorest of the poor. Instead their mission is to allow people who would otherwise not have access to education, to obtain it via this laptop. These people are often rural farmers, or laborers. They have shelter, food and water. But they do not have enough to afford the cost of education as well.

In this sense the laptops will connect rural families with other users and give them access to education. Books would be fine, however the issue is getting more books, which in the course of an average education costs more than $150 (books, transport, lost wages etc) . The laptops seek to reduce the costs associated with education and hopefully put it within reach of more people.

I am not a cheerleader for the OLPC, I doubt they will successfully implement this idea, simply because the logistics of this idea is an overwhelming obstacle. But if this means more people can benefit from an education, then why should they not at least try?

raerae says:

Oops! Silly me!

I thought the OLPC was planning on making the laptops available to poor Americans – because, shocking as it sounds, there are plenty of poor people who could benefit greatly from having a computer in this country.

In fact, if you are in a developing country and a program like this is of great benefit – doesn’t it almost go without saying that there may not be a local eBay? I know, I know, global access, etc. – but if you are so poor as to need a laptop at less than $150 – could you afford the shipping etc. that one must pay before receiving a payment from a customer? If the buyer uses paypal or a similar service, payment can take up to a month or more.

I agree with Lawrman – there is a great need in this country, in our underperfoming schools and rural areas. one could work years to get just the US completely wired (wired-less?) I live in the Bay Area where one reads daily of people being shot and killed, mainly the poor. My guess is these are people who do not have access to computers, do not have a decent education, do not have a chance of improving their situation. Those are people who could truly benefit from OLPC AND having benefited, could very well turn around, as they should, and help others follow their path.

The Original Just Me says:

I actually want one

Let me state up front that I have way too many computers. Some I’ve purchased, some I’ve built, some are long term loaners from work, some are pieces waiting to become a computer. Almost all of them are used for specific tasks. I do roll my old machines down to friends and family. That being said, I want one of these.

When I’m on the road I generally don’t need all of the power in my laptop. I want to check email and maybe change my flight reservation or check the weather report. I don’t want to do any those things on a cell phone/mobile thingymabob.

The OLPC will do exactly what I need it to do, and I don’t need to baby it like a $2K laptop that isn’t weather and shock resistant in the least. It would be great to toss the OLPC machine in my suitcase and not worry about it. If it gets stolen then it is no big deal cuz it isn’t that expensive.

I’d even be willing to subsidize 100% of the cost of a laptop for someone else and pay $200. Seriously, where do I sign up?

The Original Just Me says:

I actually want one

Let me state up front that I have way too many computers. Some I’ve purchased, some I’ve built, some are long term loaners from work, some are pieces waiting to become a computer. Almost all of them are used for specific tasks. I do roll my old machines down to friends and family. That being said, I want one of these.

When I’m on the road I generally don’t need all of the power in my laptop. I want to check email and maybe change my flight reservation or check the weather report. I don’t want to do any those things on a cell phone/mobile thingymabob.

The OLPC will do exactly what I need it to do, and I don’t need to baby it like a $2K laptop that isn’t weather and shock resistant in the least. It would be great to toss the OLPC machine in my suitcase and not worry about it. If it gets stolen then it is no big deal cuz it isn’t that expensive.

I’d even be willing to subsidize 100% of the cost of a laptop for someone else and pay $200. Seriously, where do I sign up?

MyNameIsMatt (user link) says:

Couldn't the money be better spent...

I really wish people would stop using the line “couldn’t the money be better spent…” This is a plainly ignorant cope out line to use. Yes, if they could figure out how to use the money to stop world hunger than we’d all be that much better. However, that’s a simplistic idealistic and unrealistic statement, and there are already charities out there spending money in this way.

If you don’t like the project don’t give it money. It’s that simple. However, as another comment already said, this isn’t a FREE laptop for every child. It has a goal to supply every child with one laptop, but to do so in an economic manner. That doesn’t mean giving laptops away to the poorest of poor countries. It means producing affordable laptops for countries and people that could actually benefit from them.

I don’t get why people want to trash this other than some selfish, “I told you so – I’m smarter and wiser than you” kind of reasoning. You’re negative opinions are nonconstructive and futile. As I’ve said before, Negroponte knows computers and he’s putting what he knows to use in a charitable way. You might prefer that he does so in another way, but that’s actually economically inefficient (and I hope you’ll come to see this point Mike as you’re usually pretty keen on such things).

Finally, making a real impact in the world, especially from initiatives driven from an affluent world, these charities need to be very tangible. While the idea of other solutions is great, you can’t and won’t get much REAL support for investing in infrastructures that could be arguably better. And again, that isn’t Negroponte’s expertise where computers is. We have vast resources in this world, and it’s everyone’s right to try and allocate them appropriately. If Negroponte gets it wrong, then this’ll die, and someone else will try allocating funds in a charitable manner. That doesn’t mean we should spit on OLPC because we can imagine something different.

Brainfart says:

The amount of bovine excrement being posted here by pimple faced “experts” is breathtaking.
Why don’t you losers inform yourself before posting all this uninformed, non-substantiated drivel?
If you have a valid complaint that’s novel and so far hasn’t yet been addressed countless times by people who actually have a clue, then inform the people behind this great project and try to help them make it a better and safer product.

Anonymous Coward says:


Correct. Participating nations have to PAY for them. Libya wants to buy 1.2 million of them and give one to every child. Libya isn’t a poor country, and it won’t be your daddy’s hard earned tax money paying for them. So quit complaining.
Fucking morons.
And the laptop isn’t phoning home like WGA. It will remain the property of whoever paid for it. In most countries, that will be the respective government. Meaning they have every damn right to discourage theft and abuse so that morons like you won’t buy stolen ones off ebay. The thing doesn’t need internet access to work. It just needs to be reasonably close to the school server every now and then to keep it running. And if it’s reported stolen it will cease to work after a while. If found again it can be reactivated.

Tom (user link) says:

More info

From Wired:

“Beyond cyberthreats, the XO laptop will have an anti-theft system designed to render stolen laptops useless. Each XO is assigned a “lease,” secured by cryptography, that allows it to operate for a limited period of time. The laptop connects to the internet daily and checks in with a country-specific server to see if it’s been reported stolen. If not, the lease is extended another few weeks.”

“If the lease expires, the XO’s internet connectivity is turned off, and shortly thereafter the whole computer becomes a brick. In the case of an area without internet connectivity, a local school can extend the lease from its own server by Wi-Fi or with a USB dongle.”

akee bashee says:

what oS what power

Surely this will bring down the cost of Laptop comps in developed world also? I mean if they can get a screen for less than $100 and its rugged? what OS will it use, Windows 3.1? Have to be arabic compat ….and how will it be powered. The only feasible way would for hand cranking a la freeplay radio.. It sounds reasonable ..I might buy one (listen ACER DELL Lenovo £250 laptop for every schoolchild/person)

erqua says:

The “kill switch” is to deactivate stolen laptops. Not to prevent children selling their laptops on ebay. If stolen laptops are unusable, they can’t be sold, and there’ll be no incentive to steal them.

No kid will be selling their laptop. They will be using it in school as their text book. Teacher: where’s your laptop? Kid: Erm … I sold it yesterday.

The school knows which laptop is given to which student. When a student reports a stolen laptop, it gets deactivated.

These laptops will be bought by the country and distributed free to the students. Many developing countries provides free text books to the students. The funds for these laptops will be coming from the funds for these text books.

Students who already get “free” text books, do not sell them for food. How would you get through the rest of the year without your teaching noticing that your text books are missing?

The OLPC laptops have a mesh network capability. They connect wirelessly to nearby laptops, who connects to other nearby laptops, etc. Most developing countries are also densely populated. Most of these OLPC laptops will probably be online all the time.

The most important lesson here is, PLEASE DO NOT BUY these laptops if you see them offered on ebay or anywhere else.

Dick Dawson says:

XO laptops

Besides education, these new laptops would be extremely useful for health education. The charity, Teaching-aids At Low Cost, (TALC) supplies medical books like Where There is no Doctor, and Choices, which is a book to warn African teenagers about the dangers of HIV/AIDS. There are also many medical training books and children’s reading books that carry a health message and I think therefore, that using the lap tops to promote health woulkd be extremely valuable and could well contribute to saving the lives of some of the pupils using the laptops for educational purposes.

mae randolph says:

free learning laptops for girl age 8-10

i am very interested in education, and i know there is a great need in our african american communities. my niece
live in a neighborhood called the jungle, she is a real
good student[age 7] her mother is a single parent. she has one younger brother.i want her to continue to have high interest and acheive great rewards through knowledge. i would like for her to have a learning laptop at home. i can
not afford to buy one for her that would last a long time. if i could buy one i would. i love helping all students and
to encourage education, especially when there are so much
negatives in their young lives. if you can not help me maybe
you have some suggestions. i have been searching for a good
resource for days. i know this would be an asset to her life
her grades are very good…… i am an encourager, supporter
and caring great aunt. i like to do all i can for who ever i can when ever i can. she don’t have a home computer, and she is doing so well in school. i will keep on praying hoping and trusting that something good is going to happen
for her. thank you…….merry christmas and happy new year too. what should i do in time of economic crunch. thanks again.

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