Mass shootings and explosions are happening with more and more frequency across the country, and the way that our government responds to them has always been less than ideal. Whether it involves fraudulent attempts to infringe upon second amendment rights, racial profiling, or other divisive tactics, it’s important to remain constantly vigilant about the steps that the government takes in the name of protecting our safety. Those who sacrifice liberty to ensure safety deserve neither, and it’s crucial that we are vocal about our resistance to the inflation of government power.
There are some legitimate security concerns that can allow the government to shut down cell phone service, but there is no scenario in which the government can justify the infringement upon our most basic liberties. In the wake of a crisis like the explosions at the Boston Marathon, federal and local police agencies were working overtime in order to apprehend the suspects responsible for the explosion. In the aftermath of the bombing, it was initially reported that law enforcement had ordered that cell service be shut down in the area in case there was a third bomb that could be remotely detonated. Although all the major carriers disputed that such an order was ever given, the incident does raise the question: Should they have been able to shut down cell service to prevent another attack in the interim? The answer is no, but that does not – and will not – stop the federal or local agencies from deciding to cut off our ability to access cell phone communications.
A procedure called “Standard Operating Procedure 303” exists to allow the government to prevent citizens from accessing open cellular communications. This process works by organizing all requests to shut down cellular service through the National Coordinating Center for Telecommunications and is hypothetically designed to limit instances where the government can do such a thing. In reality, however, the government can shut down cell service without going through the NCCT (and has done so in the past). Government statements have claimed that this only occurs in extremely specific circumstances, but we cannot take their words at face value when shutdowns have occurred without any real threat to the public. The government has already proven incapable of using this power responsibly. In California, they used this procedure to shut down cell phone networks to avoid protests about the safety conditions of the BART. If they’ll shut access to cellular service down for things like that, then we should be worried that the government will feel comfortable shutting down service in any conditions, not just in times of crisis like the explosions in Boston. At the very least, people should be demanding that the government clarify when they believe they can and cannot use that power. Ideally, people should be demanding much more of our government: that they respect our civil liberties and allow free speech to continue uninhibited.
Potential Benefits to Shutting Down Cell Service
The only persuasive argument in favor of the government’s potential choice to shut down cell phone service is the potential for avoiding another terrorist attack. Without cell phone service, it’s almost impossible for domestic terrorists to successfully communicate with each other. Because domestic terrorists try to avoid face-to-face contact with each other in attempts to avoid police detection, they rely almost entirely on discreet cell phone or Internet communication. Cutting off cell phone reception also makes it impossible for domestic terrorists to detonate a bomb remotely via cell phone. Though almost all terrorists (domestic and international) are committed completely to the cause, the number of terrorist operatives willing to kill themselves in order to detonate the bomb is significantly smaller. If a terrorist places an explosive and plans to detonate it via a cell phone call, the odds that he or she has another remote detonator on hand is slim. The only remaining options are to forego the operation or to detonate the explosive manually. Detonating the explosive manually requires that an individual be willing to sacrifice his or her life in the event that they cannot remove themselves from the blast radius before detonation; at the very least, the odds of a successful explosion have dropped considerably.
Infringements on Safety and Civil Liberties
Though there is potential for decreased violence in a world where the government shuts down cell phone reception, the negative ramifications are far too extensive to ignore. The act would justify such widespread infringements on civil liberties that it would be impossible to recover from them. In the wake of the explosions at the Boston Marathon, open access to communication was of the utmost importance as runners tried to communicate with emergency officials, families tried to reach their sons and daughters, and emergency officials communicated with each other about deploying emergency response teams. Had cell phone service been disrupted, it would impossible for these groups to communicate, sending the entire area into even greater chaos than already existed. Cutting off cell phone reception would have been dangerous for other areas as well (Cambridge, for example) as groups communicated about the limited information available concerning the location of shooters in the area. For safety reasons, it is imperative that residents be able to communicate in times of crisis. Without the ability to communicate with each other, residents become (uninformed) sitting ducks, completely vulnerable to outside threats (shooters, explosive devices, etc.).
Aside from the grave security concerns that accompany shutting down an entire area or city’s cell phone service, there are dangerous ramifications for the First Amendment. If the government decides that a time of crisis, they should be able to shut down cell phone reception, there are no clear limits on when they will and will not be able to utilize that power. In the wake of shoddy news coverage from organizations like CNN and other news outlets, it is hard to trust the reliability of information that we receive on any given day concerning an explosion or shooting. The government made a false arrest on poor intelligence; should they be able to shut down cell reception on the basis of equally inaccurate information next time around? The answer is a resounding no: we cannot afford to sacrifice our most fundamental rights in the hopes that we will be able to thwart an attack that may or may not be coming.