Soon, you can buy gadgets that self-destruct when stolen

The self-destruct technology can be retrofitted to existing devices for a few dollars, the researchers say.
Written by Zack Whittaker, Contributor

Researchers have developed new technology that can prevent stolen phones and laptops from getting into the wrong hands -- by destroying them.

This new self-destruct mechanism built by researchers at the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST) in Saudi Arabia would provide an extra layer of defense against thieves who resell the devices or access the device's sensitive data.

The technology works quickly, and it can be installed on most modern devices, say the researchers.

"The first customers would be the ones who need data protection: intelligence communities, corporations, banks, hedge funds, social security administrations, collectors who handle massive data," says Muhammad Mustafa Hussain, an electrical engineer who helped to develop the technology, speaking to IEEE Spectrum.

Here's how it works: The self-destruct mechanism consists of an expandable polymer, which crumples the device's chips within a few seconds. When the mechanism is remotely triggered, heater electrodes that draw power from the device's battery activates the polymer, which rapidly expands to seven-times its original size when heated to 80°C (176°F).

According to the researchers, the expanding polymer can destroy a silicon chip up to 90 micrometers thick, or just less than 0.1mm.

The researchers say that a number of different triggers are possible, such as a GPS switch that could activate the self-destruct mechanism if a device is taken outside of a building, for example.

Another example would be a password-enabled app that could also remotely activate the trigger, the researchers say.

And because the technology can be retrofitted to existing laptops and desktops, that cuts down the manufacturing costs. Each self-destruct mechanism could cost as little as $15, says Hussain.

More details of the research are slated to be published in an upcoming issue of the "Advanced Materials Technologies" journal.

(Lead image via Anthony Antonellis)

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