The White House has refused to release information about a secret policy that permits the Department of Homeland Security to unilaterally shut down private cellphone service in the event of a national crisis.
Enacted almost ten years ago without public notice or debate, Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) 303, often referred to as the cellphone kill switch, has been shrouded in secrecy from its inception and has been targeted by civil liberties groups looking to make the policy public.
“We have no clue what’s in it or what it’s about,” Harold Feld, the senior vice president of Public Knowledge, a public interest advocacy group, told Al Jazeera America.
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.
After a lower court ordered the policy be made public, the DOH successfully argued on appeal that releasing any information about SOP 303 would risk public safety. Last month, however, EPIC’s petition for a rehearing of that appellate court decision was allowed to proceed.
A hearing in that case is set for this week.
The roots of SOP 303 can be traced to the 2005 London subway attacks, in which suicide bombers used their cellphones to detonate underground explosives. Immediately after that attack, US authorities shut down cell service in New York City’s Hudson River commuter tunnels for almost two weeks.
The unprecedented shutdown was made without notice to the public or even wireless carriers. The result, by the DHS’ admission, was “disorder for both government and the private sector at a time when use of the communications infrastructure was most needed,” Al Jazeera reported.
It is unclear who exactly has the authority to initiate a shutdown. According to one of the few public documents describing any aspect of SOP 303, a shutdown request may come from “state Homeland Security advisers, their designees or representatives of the DHS homeland security operations center.”
SOP 303 tasks a DHS subagency, the National Coordinating Center for Communications, with asking “a series of questions to determine if the shutdown is a necessary action” before notifying the affected cellular carriers. But no one in the public knows what those questions are.
“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.”
In addition to doubting the effect a cell service shutdown would have as a counterterrorism measure, others also worry that the policy could be easily be used to quell dissent, as it was in Northern California years ago.
In August 2011, officials in the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) system utilized its kill switch not in response to a terror attack, but to prevent people from organizing a protest against a fatal shooting by a BART police officer.