In the event of an emergency, you would probably want your cell phone to contact loved ones and make sure they are safe. But for the past decade or so, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security has held the policy of shutting down cell service during a crisis.
Standard Operating Procedude (SOP) 303, commonly referred to as the cellphone kill switch, was developed without any public input — this has civil liberties groups in an uproar.
Considering most people’s automatic response to an emergency situation is to try and communicate or to seek out more information, you have to wonder what purpose this procedure would serve.
Al Jazeera reporter Amadou Diallo speculates that the conception of this policy can be traced to the 2005 London subway attacks, “in which suicide bombers used their cellphones to detonate underground explosives.”
In August 2011, the Bay Area Rapid Transit system implemented the kill switch policy, therefore shutting down cell service in subway stations. This was administered to prevent protestors from demonstrating in reaction to a BART police officer fatally shooting a man named Charles Hill.
The BART.gov website released this letter to its customers regarding the event:
BART’s top priority is to ensure the safety of its passengers. . . BART obtained credible information that led us to conclude that the safety of the BART system would be compromised. Out of an overriding concern for our passengers’ safety, BART made the decision to temporarily interrupt cell phone service on portions of its system. We are aware that the interruption had the effect of temporarily preventing cellular communications for many BART passengers and their families; and we regret any inconvenience caused by the interruption.
This is absolutely terrifying. It’s already puzzling that a federal department feels justified to cease levels of communication in the state of an emergency. But the fact that this policy was implemented to dismantle an organized demonstration of concerned citizens is a blatant abuse of power.
Harold Feld, the senior vice president of the public advocacy group Public Knowledge told Al Jazeera:
“We have no clue what’s in [the policy] or what it’s about. . . Understanding a policy should not compromise national security.”
Department of Homeland Security has given no comment, thus far. There will be a key hearing on this issue next week.