The Obama administration is aggressively pursuing a plan to control every cell phone in the United States at the flick of a switch, Americans.org learned this week.
Precisely what the government can do and who has the authority to do it are not understood, causing an uproar. Numerous stakeholders, as well as the American public, want to know details of the rules, which have reportedly been in place since May 2006.
The secret policy allows the government to unilaterally shut down private cellular service, over an entire metropolitan area if necessary, in the event of a national crisis.
Adopted with no public notice or debate, Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) 303, often referred to as the 'cellphone kill switch', has been cloaked in secrecy from its inception and has outraged civil liberties groups battling to make the policy public.
A key hearing in that fight is set for next week.
“We have no clue what’s in it or what it’s about,” says Harold Feld, senior vice president of Public Knowledge, a public interest advocacy group. The are far from the only group concerned about the issue, as in 2012 the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) filed suit in federal court seeking disclosure of information about SOP 303’s basic guidelines and policy procedures.
Precisely who has the authority to initiate a shutdown of phone networks is unclear. According to one of the few public documents describing any aspect of SOP 303, the regulation governing the centralized shutdown of networks, a shutdown request may come from “state Homeland Security advisers, their designees or representatives of the DHS homeland security operations center.”
SOP 303 has a DHS subagency, the National Coordinating Center for Communications, asking “a series of questions to determine if the shutdown is a necessary action” before they notify the affected cellular carriers. The content of the questions remains a secret.
Critics of SOP 303 argue that cellular communication, both voice and internet, is too vital to the public to be shut off.
“I don’t see any situation where you want to shut down the [cellular] phone network,” says Feld. “In the years since 9/11 we have moved all our critical public safety services onto the cellular network.”
Others take issue with the counterterrorism benefits of shutting down cell service, observing that in previous attacks, bombers have detonated devices using their phones’ alarm clock feature, a method that does not require a connection to a cell tower.
Civil liberties groups are fearful that such far-reaching and unchecked power would be used simply to quell dissent.
It's happened before, when in August 2011 officials of Northern California’s Bay Area Rapid Transit system utilized its kill switch to temporarily shut off cellphone service in several subway stations.
The shutdown wasn’t in response to a terrorist event or threat.
Its purpose was instead to prevent a demonstration that organizers planned to hold in those stations protesting a fatal shooting by a BART police officer.
“We want the guidelines to be released,” says Alan Butler, an EPIC lawyer who has been involved with the court case from the beginning. “We want information about the scope of the rules and the questions [DHS] would ask before deactivating service.”
In the BART shutdown there was neither a public threat nor a request to cellular providers to suspend service — BART engineers shut off underground signal amplifiers — he wonders what rules, if any, were followed. “[DHS] is supposed to be coordinating [these] functions. If that didn’t happen here … if there was a procedure in place and it wasn’t used, the question is, Why not?”
Asked to explain the decision to withhold even basic procedural information about SOP 303 from the public, a DHS representative replied, “We have no comment on this.”