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Modern smartphones can feel like technological black boxes. The mobile operating systems that power them have become incredibly complex, with often hundreds or possible even thousands of various functions that can trigger things like your GPS, cellular modem, or Bluetooth radio. Even when you tell your phone to turn off certain things, like Wi-Fi, our phones don’t always do as they’re told. But it doesn’t have to be that way, provided you’re willing to dive very, very deep into the Linux end of the smartphone pool. The PinePhone is one of the few mobile devices with hardware kill switches for common features, giving you full control over your smartphone.
The PinePhone is a smartphone developed by Pine64, a company that has been selling ARM-based products since 2015. The first fully-functional versions went on sale earlier this year after years of development, but Pine64 has also started selling Community Editions with various Linux distributions pre-installed. That’s right, the PinePhone is built to run Linux.
We talked about the PinePhone’s general hardware and software in a previous article, but there’s one feature that deserves more attention — the hardware killswitches found underneath the rear case. Once you open up the PinePhone, you get access to six induvidual dip switches that control the modem, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, microphone, rear camera, front camera, and even the headphone jack.
These switches physically disable the connection to the specified component, so you can be absolutely sure you’re in control. If you’re one of those people who cover your laptop’s webcam (like everyone’s favorite billionaire), you don’t need to cover the PinePhone in stickers, just turn off the camera switches and go back to using your phone as normal. Want to see what having a Galaxy S20 is like? All you need to do is flip the switch to disable the headphone jack.
Granted, the PinePhone isn’t the only phone to have physical kill switches for certain features. Purism’s Librem 5 smartphone also runs Linux, and it has three physical switches on the side for the GPS, accelerometer/compass, and ambient light/proximity sensors. There’s also a software-based ‘Lockdown Mode’ that effectively shuts off everything except Wi-Fi.
The Librem 5’s hardware killswitches
It’s great to see devices like the PinePhone and Librem 5 offer the full control over hardware that is rarely seen on smartphones. While Android and iOS both offer robust sandboxing and software toggles for most hardware features, knowing for sure that your camera can’t be accessed without your knowledge (even in the event of a security vulnerability) is a great feeling.