Purism Puts Physical Kill Switches on Latest Laptop

The crowdfunded Librem 15 laptop, introduced last fall, was designed from the ground up with privacy in mind. Now, the security-minded manufacturer Purism plans to follow up with a smaller and more secure model, the Librem 13. This version, with a screen measuring 13 inches, will be equipped with physical kill switches that disable communications.

Purism is again turning to crowdfunding to pay for this new model, using the Crowd Supply service to aim for a goal of $250,000. Slated to begin shipping in September, the Librem 13 starts at $1,449 for the first 50 early-bird contributors, and goes up to $1,649 after the first 100 orders are placed. It comes with 4GB of RAM, a 500GB hard drive and integrated Intel HD 5500 graphics, with options to boost the RAM to 16GB and the drive to a 1TB SSD.

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The original Librem 15 featured top-row Function keys for disabling Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, the webcam and the microphone. But those software-based keys could be overridden secretly by spyware.

The new laptop model kicks things up a notch. With a flip of its physical kill switches, the circuits connecting to those features are manually disabled. If a user tries to access the webcam while its kill switch is activated, the Librem will act as if no such webcam existed.

Purism founder and CEO Todd Weaver explained to me that the Librem 15's initial backers overwhelmingly agreed that physical kill switches were the next must-have security feature. These are so important to customers that they will be a part of the Librem 15 REV2 model, which will ship alongside the 13-inch model in September. The original Librem 15 sold out after it raised $472,861 in crowdfunding, almost doubling the $250,000 goal.

Weaver also said Purism has just added Jacob Appelbaum — a privacy advocate, hacker and former representative of WikiLeaks — as an adviser to its board. It raises Purism's profile to have Appelbaum on the board after he tweeted, "I've been emailing with the #Purism folks. I'm really impressed with their vision, their commitment to Free Software (FL/OSS) and privacy."

Just like the Librem 15, the 13 is built around a motherboard that Purism had custom-made, with all of its other parts selected with high-end encryption in mind. The Librem notebooks run PureOS, a Debian-based flavor of Linux. Weaver told me that PureOS, unlike many Linux distributions, is free of proprietary drivers or software of unknown origin.

The Librem notebooks also feature PureBrowser (a security-oriented fork of the Firefox Web browser), as well as the Tor anonymizing browser. There's also LibreOffice, a well-known alternative to Microsoft Office. Rounding out the included software is Evolution, an email and calendar client that allows for PGP key-based security.