After this week's bombing at the Boston Marathon, there were many reports of cell phone service being down. People had trouble getting calls through to loved ones. Rumors quickly spread that a government kill switch must have been used to shut down mobile networks. While those rumors were false, the incident sheds light on a federal rule that does make the Department of Homeland Security capable of such a shutdown.
Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) 303 is a shutdown and restoration procedure conducted by the DHO’s National Communications System. Otherwise known as the Emergency Wireless Protocols, the process remains classified.
During a crisis, commercial and private wireless network connections can be terminated. SOP 303 states that a request to shutdown must be submitted to the National Coordinating Center for Telecommunications. If deemed necessary, carriers in the area will be notified of the shutdown so connections can be reestablished later.
But the details of SOP 303 remains largely a secret. The U.S. government can shut down mobile and internet service in an entire metropolitan area, but the criteria for such a shut down is not public knowledge.
There are concerns that such a law could impede on the first amendment right to free speech. During the 2011 protests in Egypt, Hosni Mubarak’s government shut down both cell phone networks and internet service.
The Center for Democracy and Technology (CDT) and other groups filed a complaint with the Federal Communications Commission in May 2012 alleging SOP 303 is unconstitutional. They believe the government has not made clear all the details of SOP 303. They are concerned that no courts are involved in the procedure.
“There is no provision for any judicial review, whether before or after the service interruption, and certainly no provision for notice and opportunity to challenge for affected cell phone users,” CDT commented to the FCC.
The Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) filed a Freedom of Information Act request on SOP 303 documents in 2012, including a question as to why SOP 202 is secret.
The DHS has yet to fully respond to EPIC.