Secret government plan to disable all cell phone service during emergencies may finally be disclosed

Thursday, August 27, 2015 by

A petition filed before the U.S. Supreme Court seeks to force the federal government to disclose heretofore secret plans to disable all cell phone service in the event of a declared national emergency.

As reported by Ars Technica, the filing relates to Standard Operating Procedure 303, the Emergency Wireless Protocols which are part of the National Communications System, which is managed by the Department of Homeland Security. In May, a federal appeals court ruled that the government was not required to release the full contents of SOP 303 under Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requirements because the law allows exceptions for information deemed vital to the preservation of national security and public safety.

In its filing, the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) charged that the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia created a new “catchall provision that can be used in any case involving records related to domestic and national security programs” (see EPIC’s filing here[PDF]).

The group demanded the documents from the Department of Homeland Security in 2011 after officials with the San Francisco Bay Area shut down all cell phone service in a bid to quell a protest related to the killing of a homeless man by a transit authority police officer.

Major telecoms have pledged support

DHS, however, refused to divulge any documents associated with SOP 303, which the lower D.C. appeals court described as a “unified voluntary process for the orderly shut-down and restoration of wireless services during critical emergencies such as the threat of radio-activated improvised explosive devices.”

Under direction of the National Security Telecommunications Advisory Committee, SOP 303 permits the shutting down of wireless networks “within a localized area, such as a tunnel or bridge, and within an entire metropolitan area.”

Major U.S. telecom companies have agreed to shutter service when SOP 303 is invoked, but there are no publicly disclosed instances of the measure ever being invoked. Initially, The Associated Press reported in the wake of the Boston Marathon bombing that cell service had been shut down, but later reports indicated that a shutdown did not occur.

According to IT Law Wiki, a site that defines and describes statutes and regulations, SOP 303 was a developed jointly in 2006 by the president’s National Security Telecommunications Advisory Committee, the FBI, the DHS, the New York Department of Homeland Security, the Federal Communications Commission and other federal and private entities.

No response to requests for information

The site further notes:

Under SOP 303, the National Coordinating Center (NCC) is the focal point for coordinating actions leading up to and following the termination of wireless connections. A designated federal, state, or local law enforcement official or member of government will submit a request to the NCC, which will ask a series of questions of the requesting official to determine whether the shutdown is necessary. The NCC will then notify carriers in the affected area and coordinate the reestablishment of service as soon as possible once the shutdown is no longer required.

In an earlier filing against DHS, EPIC sought information via FOIA on a so-called “Internet kill switch” under provisions of SOP 303 – after DHS officials refused to voluntarily provide documentation regarding the rule’s implementation.

EPIC, on its website, claimed that DHS has stated publicly under SOP 303 that an agency component “will function as the focal point for coordinating 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.” But in response to the FOIA, DHS wrote that it was “unable to locate or identify any responsive records.”

Regarding EPIC’s petition to the Supreme Court, it wasn’t clear if or when justices would hear the case.


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