Not much is known about the US government's policy and ability to shut down wireless communications in case of national emergencies, such as terrorist attacks. That could change come January.
Its official bureaucratic name is Standard Operating Procedure 303 (SOP 303) and it was hatched during the Bush administration in 2006.
Its mundane-sounding title belies the fact that SOP 303 mandates switching off mobile phone communications for entire American cities during emergencies. That's why the directive is better known by the moniker kill switch as it more aptly describes the effect SOP 303 can have on communications.
But that is pretty much the extent of what the public knows about the kill switch. "The only information we had about the policy was a paragraph in a 2006 annual report that the Department of Homeland Security issued," David Jacobs, consumer protection counsel for the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC), a Washington-based group, told DW.
Probably the best known global cases of using kill switch authority are Egypt and Syria, where two beleaguered presidents tried to stifle opposition protests by turning off wireless communications.
In the US, from what is known so far, a national shutdown of Internet and mobile phone services is not possible as the public document on SOP 303 only mentions the option of switching off services in metropolitan areas.
What's more, communication services in the US and other Western countries are less centralized than in autocratic states. Still, switching off mobile phone or Internet services in the US is fairly simple too. While the government does not have a central kill switch button, all it needs to do is order the handful of phone and Internet providers that route the bulk of the traffic to shut down their services in a specific area via SOP 303.
EPIC decided that the little that was known clearly raised constitutional issues such as a threat to freedom of speech, but also public safety concerns, and subsequently filed suit against the government to release the policy. When the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) finally produced the text it was effectively unreadable because it had been heavily redacted. After another round in court, a judge ruled last month that DHS must publish a much less redacted version of the document by mid-January or lodge an appeal. The DHS declined DW's request to comment due to the ongoing litigation.
To be sure, most kill switch critics acknowledge that the president has the legal authority to shut down communications in emergency situations, a policy that dates back to World War I. What they want however is close judicial overview over this process, so that it can only be used in extraordinary circumstances. Judging by the scant information that is publicly available, they believe SOP 303 may lack the required legal oversight.
"We know that the potential for abuse is obvious," says Jacobs, citing an incident in San Francisco in 2011 when local transportation officials shut down mobile phone services for several subway stations ahead of a planned demonstration. "That is probably the highest profile example. The initial 2006 report also referenced the deactivation of the cell phone networks in New York after the London bombing in 2005. It didn't elaborate on that at all."
That second kill switch incident - shutting down mobile phone services in New York - was authorized, according to media reports, to prevent a possible detonation of bombs via mobile phones.
"In some very specific cases, it may be useful, for example, if police have evidence that in a small area there may be a bomb that could be triggered at a specific time (e.g. during a packed public event) by a signal over a mobile phone channel," argues Ian Brown, associate director of Oxford University's Cyber Security Center.
"Also, mobile phone networks have the capability to prioritize calls from emergency responders (like firefighters and paramedics) where the network is severely congested - as can be the case in an area following a disaster."
After the London attacks, the US increased security
Except under those very limited circumstances, shutting down communication networks, is counterproductive, Brown told DW via e-mail. Not just because emergency situations are times when people actually have an increased need to communicate with responders or family, but also because shutting down mobile phone or Internet services in today's digital economy would have detrimental effects on businesses.
While the US is the major global communications hub, shutting down mobile phone or Internet services in an American metropolitan area is unlikely to directly impact the rest of the world because traffic can be rerouted.
Still, notes Jacobs, "I can't rule out the possibility that disrupting Internet service might have international effects."