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Boston bombing outage rumors shed light on mobile and Internet 'kill switch'

Published time: April 17, 2013 01:20
AFP Photo / Saul Loeb

AFP Photo / Saul Loeb

Following the Boston Marathon bombings, news began to spread of a US government cellphone network shutdown. While the claims were quickly shown to be false, a secret federal rule does, in fact, make such a shutdown possible.

While the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has in the past denied the existence of Standard Operating Procedure 303, as Ars Technica recently pointed out, the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) challenged the secrecy of such documents in 2012 by filing a Freedom of Information Act request.

What EPIC found via its lawsuit was that a 2007 report stated that the network shutdown policy was adopted in March of 2006. According to that report, the National Coordinating Center, a part of the DHS, was to be the main player in “any actions leading up to and following the termination of private wireless network connections, both within a localized area, such as a tunnel or bridge, and within an entire metropolitan area."

There has been particular focus on government possession of any sort of 'kill switch' over cell networks and internet service since the embattled government of Hosni Mubarak shut down both in Egypt at the height of protests in 2011.

That same year, when San Francisco’s transit authority made the decision to shut off cell phone networks within its metro service in anticipation of protests, critics were quick to point out the draconian implications.

Somewhat ironically, following the BART incident the Federal Communications Commission launched an investigation into the cell network shutdown that resulted in the government's so-called SOP 303 rule for that sort of activity. In their response to a Federal Communications Commission (FCC) query, wireless carriers such as AT&T stated that there was, in fact, no need for an inquiry, as government policy on shutting down private cell networks was already established.

"Federal and State authorities, the [FCC], wireless providers and other private stakeholders, have previously considered these issues in a cooperative process that resulted in the National Communications System’s Standard Operating Procedure 303," AT&T responded. "SOP 303 resolves the questions posed by the Commission in the Notice and eliminates the need for the Commission to reconsider those issues in this docket."

In plain English, what AT&T responded with in the case of the San Francisco cell network shutdown is that a little-known rule, which the DHS initially denied even existed, was already in effect - and that wireless carriers simply obliged with city government in its request.

In its initial FOIA filing, EPIC requested further information as well as justification for the secrecy behind SOP 303, which is officially understood as “a shutdown and restoration process for use by commercial and private wireless networks during national crises.”

At question is just what might constitute a national crisis, and by which government stakeholders. As Ars Technica, an IT news site reports, the DHS has yet to fully respond to EPIC, though it has already abandoned the idea that no such rule regarding government enactment of a cell network 'off switch' exists.

This means that the US government has procedures set in place to shut off private cell phone access across an entire metropolitan region, though it is not publicly understood by what criteria, or what precise process such a rule was anointed to homeland security.