People live their lives on their cell phones these days – more and more even are cutting off their land lines as an unnecessary expense and relying solely on their wireless links to the rest of the world.
But what happens when the government decides – for whatever reason – to shut down that network?
What if it just pulls the plug on Americans’ cell service?
Among other impacts, people wouldn’t even be able to call 9-1-1 in an emergency, according to new documents filed with the U.S. Supreme Court by officials with Electronic Privacy Information Center,
The organization has been fighting a campaign to gain access to the policy established by the federal government for shutting down cell-phone networks for whatever reasons may arise.
The organization notes that the government did exactly that during a peaceful protest at a Bay Area Rapid Transit system station in 2012.
It says it got a redacted copy of the federal plan some time ago, but that essentially answered none of the significant questions.
It had requested that the U.S. Supreme Court review the contentious subject, and now after the government argued that it should be allowed to keep details suppressed, EPIC has filed an answer that calls again for transparency.
The filing notes the public safety concerns in maintaining a cell-phone network.
“The Federal Communications Commission … has expressed strong concerns that interruptions of cell phone service pose a threat to public safety,” the brief explains. “Such decisions by a federal agency could prevent access [to] timely medical and emergency services,” it said.
“The FCC explicitly prohibits the use of ‘jammers’ and other devices that disrupt cell phone service, and has repeatedly issued advisories to state and local government officials (including law enforcement agencies) emphasizing the importance of the prohibition.
“These techniques ‘can prevent 9/1/1 and other emergency phone calls’ from ‘getting through to first responders or interfere with’ official ‘communications that are critical to carrying out law enforcement missions,'” it said.
“It is precisely in those circumstances when the DHS contemplates a cellphone shutdown that public access to cellphone service may be most vital,” the brief explains.
It’s already happened.
One situation developed a number of years ago in New York, where service was shut down to users in a subway system section.
But the government has been less than forthcoming about the standards it uses to decide if, when and for how long to disable services.
“There is an urgency to review the lower court’s conflicting interpretation of Exemption 7(F) in this case because of the important civil liberties and safety concerns at issue,” EPIC argued. “EPIC originally filed the FOIA request in response to the shutdown of cellular service during a peaceful protest in a California transit (‘BART’) station. The DHS states in its brief that the BART officials who shut down cellphone service during a peaceful protest … acted outside the authority … But this fact only underscores the public’s need to review the DHS policy governing lawful interruption of cell phone service,” it said.
WND reported just a few months ago just exactly who could cut off Americans’ service and why isn’t for citizens to know, according to the government.
It was reported then that during the BART protest, officials cut off service for several hours after a BART security officer shot and killed a homeless man and protests erupted.
The shutdown order was made when a protest organizer sought to coordinate activists via cell phone.
The San Francisco shutdown, which is supposed to be controlled by the Department of Homeland Security’s Standard Operating Procedure 303, prevented anyone inside the transit stations “from sending or receiving phone calls, messages, emergency notifications and other transmissions,” according to the Electronic Privacy Information Center.
The plan was adopted in 2006 by the National Communications System, but it never has been released to the public, even though it codifies a “shutdown and restoration process for use by commercial and private wireless networks during a national crisis.”
Its existence was affirmed in a 2011 report from the Obama White House that asserted the “National Security Council and the Office of Science and Technology Policy have the legal authority to control private communications systems in the United States during times of war or other national emergencies.”
In fact, the White House, through executive order, granted DHS “the authority to seize private facilities, when necessary, effectively shutting down or limiting civilian communications,” EPIC said.
But information such as the text of the policy and the protocols for when cell service is taken over need to be made public, the organization argues.
EPIC, an independent nonprofit research and advocacy center for privacy issues, brought the case against the Department of Homeland Security and points out for the high court that there are conflicting opinions now between the D.C. Circuit Court and the 2nd Circuit.
The redacted federal policy that was release essentially advises that the National Coordinating Center for Telecommunications has a way to access messages asking for cell service to be shut down and ways to verify them.
But large blocks of detail were withheld.
It does list various organizations from which it would accept messages, for example, the Alabama Emergency Management Agency.