The government will soon have to defend its position as to why it should be allowed to shut down cellphone service in the event of a "critical emergency," while keeping any such plans to do so a secret.
Referred to as Standard Operating Procedure 303, the government's power to effectively render your phone useless under extraordinary circumstances was billed as a "unified voluntary process for the orderly shut-down and restoration of wireless services during critical emergencies," ArsTechnica reported. Such an emergency could include the "threat of radio-activated improvised explosive devices."
A Pakistani cellular phone user poses with his instruments having failed to make a call following the suspension of mobile phone services in Karachi on November 23, 2012. Pakistan suspended mobile phone services in major cities to prevent terror attacks from marring commemorations for the holy month of Muharram, officials said. (Credit: AFP/Getty Images)
The Department of Homeland Security is currently the only agency that has the authority to pull the cellular service plug. Specifically, the National Security Telecommunications Advisory Committee would make the call that allows for celluar networks to be shut down "within a localized area, such as a tunnel or bridge, and within an entire metropolitan area."
SOP 303 was put in place shortly after a cellphone was used to blow up a portion of London's subway system. The NSTAC's plan has gone largely unchallenged in the courts – until now.
The U.S. District Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia on Friday demanded the government respond to years worth of requests from outside groups, such as the Electronic Privacy Information Center. EPIC originally asked the court for the government document containing more information about SOP 303 in 2011 when officials tried to stop a protest by shutting down service near a San Francisco subway station.
Bay Area Rapid Transit also shut down at least a portion of its train service during the same time period.
After the incident, EPIC submitted a Freedom of Information Act request asking to see the federal document granting DHS the authority. The government approved the request but heavily redacted much of the document. EPIC then sued the government for allegedly violating FOIA laws, according to ArsTechnica.
The group won the lawsuit but the government later appealed the court's decision and the judge eventually sided with the government. The long, drawn-out legal battle finally showed signs of an end Friday when a judge demanded the government respond to EPIC within 15 days of the order.
"The Freedom of Information Act is a disclosure statute, not a withholding statute. Congress enacted the FOIA in order to overhaul the public information provisions of the Administrative Procedures Act, and to 'permit access to official information long shielded unnecessarily from public view," EPIC's petition states.
A spokesperson for the Department of Homeland Security did not immediately respond to TheBlaze when asked to comment on the case.
You can read EPIC's full petition below:
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