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Today, the US govt must explain why its rules on shutting down whole cell networks are a secret

Mass kill-switch policy under the microscope

The US government will be forced to explain why its cell network kill-switch plans should be kept secret today.

Under Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) 303, the US government – in particular the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) – is allowed to shutdown cellphone service anywhere in the country, and even across an entire city if it feels there is a crisis situation.

However, the actual content of the policy remains secret, raising fears that it is open to abuse. For example, it's not clear who is authorized to make such a decision nor under what circumstances.

There are also groups concerned that killing of cellphone service during an emergency could make things worse.

In a frequently quoted example, San Francisco's rail system BART flipped a cell network kill-switch in several subway stations in 2011 amid a protest over a BART cop who shot and killed a drunk homeless man. Charles Hill allegedly threw a knife at an officer before the police opened fire.

The fact that the network shutdown was ordered against a public demonstration raised immediate concerns over how the policy is written and implemented.

In February 2013, sparked by the BART event and a refusal by the DHS to release the policy under a Freedom of Information Act request, the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) sued the DHS [PDF] in order to get it to disclose the details.

In November of that year, a Washington DC judge ordered the policy be published, with redactions allowed for two parts of the policy (Exemptions 6 and 7(C)). The judge did however note that he was "mindful of the national-security implications involved," and so gave 30 days for appeal. The DHS successfully appealed, with the appeal court ruling that releasing any information about SOP 303 would risk public safety.

If at first...

In response, in December 2014, EPIC filed for a rehearing [PDF], arguing that the grounds on which it was argued the policy could be withheld were incorrect and were not consistent with either the state's law or a recent Supreme Court decision.

The appeals court agreed to a rehearing and then an extension for the DHS to explain why the grounds for withholding the details were legitimate. That extended deadline is today.

The policy itself largely came about in response to the terrorist attack in London on 7 July, 2005, during which suicide bombers detonated explosives on three underground trains and a bus, killing themselves and 52 people.

Even though it's highly likely the murderers used other means to trigger their explosions simultaneously, the cellphone service was immediately cut off in tunnels in the United States and remained off for more than a week – something that created significant disruption and led to the DHS deciding it needed a policy in future to both bring down and restore cellphone services.

The policy was approved in May 2006 but, presumably in order to speed up its adoption, it did not go through a public comment process and the details remain secret. The DHS has subsequently resisted any and all efforts to have a broader discussion about the policy and its contents. ®


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