Respectfully submitted by Lawrence E. Rafferty (rafflaw)-Weekend Contributor
You may not have heard of it before, but the government has the ability to shut off cell phone service at any time, under the guise of National Security. The Department of Homeland Security has an operating procedure known as Standard Operating Procedure 303( SOP 303) and it has been labeled as the cell phone “kill switch”.
I knew very little about the “kill switch” before today, but according to a recent Al Jezeera America article, the kill switch authority is being currently debated in Federal court.
“For nearly a decade, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has maintained a policy for unilaterally shutting down private cellular service, over an entire metropolitan area if necessary, in the event of a national crisis.
Adopted without public notice or debate, Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) 303, often referred to as the cellphone kill switch, has been shrouded in secrecy from its inception and has outraged some civil liberties groups battling to make the policy public.
A key hearing in that fight is set for next week.
“We have no clue what’s in it or what it’s about,” says Harold Feld, the senior vice president of Public Knowledge, a public interest advocacy group. In 2012 the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) filed suit in federal court seeking disclosure of information about SOP 303’s basic guidelines and policy procedures.
Using the argument that releasing any information about SOP 303 would risk public safety, the DHS prevailed in an appeals court after a lower court ruled in favor of making the policy public. In March of this year, however, EPIC’s petition for a rehearing of that appellate court decision was allowed to proceed, with the court issuing an April 27 deadline for the government to respond.” Reader Supported News
The government is fighting to keep the public in the dark about just who makes the decision to utilize the “kill switch” and what factors the decision maker(s) use to determine if there is a national security risk that requires the use of the “kill switch”. I think most of us can understand that the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has a difficult job in keep all of us safe. However, I believe the government has relied upon the national security defense too liberally in this case.
One should not be surprised that the SOP 303 could very easily be misused and if the Obama Administration is allowed to keep these policies secret, the threat to civil liberties is palpable. The reason I believe that civil liberties could be threatened is because the “kill switch” has already been used to thwart free speech on a local level.
“Civil liberties groups fear that such far-reaching and unchecked power could be used simply to quell dissent. That’s exactly what happened in August 2011 when officials of Northern California’s Bay Area Rapid Transit system utilized its kill switch to temporarily shut off cellphone service in several subway stations. The shutdown wasn’t in response to a terrorist threat. Its purpose was to prevent a demonstration that organizers planned to hold in those stations protesting a fatal subway shooting by a BART police officer.” Reader Supported News
When you see the vast reach of social media and smart phones, it is not surprising that government officials may abuse the authority to prevent or disrupt ongoing legal demonstrations or attempt to prevent a legal demonstration as noted above in Northern California. Shouldn’t the authorities have a narrow authority and implementation process before the First Amendment rights of thousands or even millions of people are impacted?
We have already seen how smartphones and social media have aided citizens in Northern California, but Syria and Egypt blocked cell phones and the internet in response to citizen protests and demonstrations. With this background of a “kill switch” being utilized to thwart public demonstrations here and abroad, the Obama Administration should at least tell us who can decide to use the switch and under what narrow guidelines can it be used.
Are we asking too much? Is the First Amendment at risk without us knowing how and when this extreme measure can be legally used? When we know that SOP 303 was secretly developed in a very hasty manner after the London subway bombings, isn’t that another reason to be concerned? What do you think?
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