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Government Asks When It Can Shut Down Wireless Communications 267

Posted by Soulskill
from the right-after-we-vote-you-all-out-of-office dept.
Fluffeh writes "Around nine months ago, BART Police asked to have wireless communications disabled (PDF) between Trans Bay Tube Portal and the Balboa Park Station. That was because they knew a public protest was to take place there — and the service to the underground communication system was disabled. This affected not only cellphone signals, but also the radio systems of Police, Fire and Ambulance crews (PDF) within the underground. This led to an even larger protest at a BART station and many folks filed complaints along with the American Civil Liberties Union and Electronic Frontier Foundation. The FCC responded by launching a probe into the incident. The results were a mixed bag of 'To protect citizens!' and 'Only in extreme cases,' not to mention the classic 'Terrorists use wireless communications!' But even if the probe doesn't lead to a full proceeding and formal order, the findings may well be used as a guide for many years to come."
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Government Asks When It Can Shut Down Wireless Communications

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  • by crazyjj (2598719) * on Tuesday May 08, 2012 @04:10PM (#39933071)

    it's clear that the big wireless companies are willing to shut down service—but they want the government to offer some direction. "Verizon Wireless understands that there may be some cases where shutting down wireless service to an area is necessary," the company wrote to the FCC on May 1. "In such cases, wireless carriers need a process for ensuring that the decision to shut down the network has been appropriately vetted and that the request comes from a single, reliable source."

    In other words, as long as it comes from a recognized government official, we'll be happy to comply.

    I think that's the same policy telcos have in Egypt and Syria, no?

    • Given the narrow scope of the question, isn't this precisely how we expect the deliberative process on such a question to work?

      Or is the answer always, "never"?

      • by YodasEvilTwin (2014446) on Tuesday May 08, 2012 @04:22PM (#39933297) Homepage
        Yeah, it should always be never. In what situation would shutting down the cell networks be appropriate? Never mind the fact that government officials are obviously willing to use this merely to suppress free speech, so the process can't possibly be acceptable.
        • by tlhIngan (30335) <slashdot AT worf DOT net> on Tuesday May 08, 2012 @05:32PM (#39934387)

          Yeah, it should always be never. In what situation would shutting down the cell networks be appropriate? Never mind the fact that government officials are obviously willing to use this merely to suppress free speech, so the process can't possibly be acceptable.

          Which means that any authority trying to make things more convenient for users should never, ever, do it.

          To know why it's an issue, realize that BART decided to install repeaters that they bought, and they operate so users of BART can have cell service where there was none before.

          If as a result they can never, ever turn them off (barring stuff like it breaking down), then the take-away from all that is to never ever bother installing them in the first place and let users just live without their cellphones for their journey. In which case the only way to get service is to have the users petition cell providers to install antennas that cover the dead spots. Of course, the authority owning the land will probably not allow them to install it on the premises (see above) so there will be dead spots where existing antenna installations cannot reach.

          I suppose that's the sad lesson to be learned - better to not provide, than to provide and get slapped with lawsuits should you fail to provide. And this applies to any place right now with bad cell service - including underground car parks and such where the building owner might want ot make their tenant's lives a little bit more convenient.

          Now, if it's the carrier's own signals then yeah, you can't block it ever...

          I don't disagree with the sentiment, but the flip side has to be considered as well. I suppose it's like providing a WiFi hotspot, deciding you don't like the crowds and turning it off, then being slapped with a lawsuit. Perhaps that's why government buildings don't have guest wifi.

      • by crazyjj (2598719) *

        Or is the answer always, "never"?

        No, but I would hope the answer would be a little better than "As long as the guy asking has proper government credentials."

        • by betterunixthanunix (980855) on Tuesday May 08, 2012 @04:25PM (#39933359)
          There is no reason to give the government the power to shut down vital communication systems. Such power can only be abused and serves no legitimate purpose.
          • by X0563511 (793323) on Tuesday May 08, 2012 @04:38PM (#39933611) Homepage Journal

            Hell they already have abused it. Witness the whole BART fiasco we are talking about.

          • by Digicrat (973598)

            How about the (admittedly unlikely) case of a known bomb threat in a given region with a cell phone as its remote detonator? Or perhaps a known threat/disaster in an enclosed and highly crowded space where controlling information is necessary to prevent panic and facilitate an orderly evacuation?

            The key is that such capabilities should only be exercised under extreme conditions where lives are in danger -- but never for mere political expediency (ie: impeding a legitimate protest).

            • by Jeng (926980)

              You can just as easily make it trigger when it receives no signal as to make it trigger from a phone call.

              • But that's...LOGIC!

                Seriously, how difficult is it to switch trigger mechanisms? Trivial or super-trivial?

                Besides, after that one spam message prematurely set off a bomb in that Middle-Eastern country, I don't think any bomb maker is interested in using a cell-phone again (as a triggering device).

            • How about the (admittedly unlikely) case of a known bomb threat in a given region with a cell phone as its remote detonator?

              Turning off cell service could just as easily CAUSE the bomb to explode.

              Or perhaps a known threat/disaster in an enclosed and highly crowded space where controlling information is necessary to prevent panic and facilitate an orderly evacuation?

              People in an enclosed highly crowded space don't need electronic devices to spread panic.

              The key is that such capabilities should only be exercised under extreme conditions where lives are in danger

              What keeps LEA from seeing a protest as an extreme condition? They could argue the risk of something extreme happening during a protest warrants action.

              but never for mere political expediency (ie: impeding a legitimate protest).

              Good luck codifying that.

            • I'd take the bomb threat over the J. Edgars any day.

      • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

        by Anonymous Coward

        Given the narrow scope of the question, isn't this precisely how we expect the deliberative process on such a question to work?

        Or is the answer always, "never"?

        Yes. Never.

        We are supposed to be a FREE and OPEN society. When we start restricting people's communications, their RIGHT to peacefully assemble (blacking out communications aids in restricting protests), and having this whole BIG BROTHER - LAW and ORDER mentality, we are heading down a very dangerous road. Just because you don't like what protestors have to say or what their issues are doesn't mean we should silince them or dampen their ability to organize.

        One day it will affect you - or a group that you

        • by foobsr (693224)

          We are supposed to be a FREE and OPEN society.

          Actually, you maybe were "supposed ...", probably by those who designed your constitution.

          Albeit, it never really worked (e.g. discrimination by ethnic origin thwarting both 'FREE' and 'OPEN').

          Cc.

        • by jklovanc (1603149)

          They are not shutting off all communications. If a protester moved a couple hundred feet, to outside the station, their coverage would be fine. Equating blocking coverage in a dangerous area to blocking all communication is invalid. Do I think it is OK to limit my ability to organize a large protest in an area where people could die? Absolutely.

      • Familiar with the first amendment.....
      • by h4rr4r (612664)

        I would say never. Only because I cannot think of anytime they should do that. Can you?

        • by jklovanc (1603149)

          Think about a few thousand angry protesters on a small platform. Do you think it is possible for people to be pushed in front of moving trains or onto the electrified rail? That is the safety issue that BART was trying to deal with. Had the protesters organized the protest to take place above ground where it was safe and their cell phones still worked there would not be a problem.

      • Given you are essentially disarming the population and preparing for an attack of some sort noting short of Martial law should give the government such powers.

        • by foobsr (693224)

          Given you are essentially disarming the population and preparing for an attack of some sort ...

          So the wet dream of any BOFH (a data centre without users) would scale up to a government without a populace (a day after all those bloody nuisances have been wiped away)?

          CC.

      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        by cpu6502 (1960974)

        They didn't shut it down for the same reasons roads are sometimes closed (weather emergency or major accident). They shut it down to censor free speech & prevent a protest. The air belongs to the People and they have a right to use it. They should never be blocked from using their property, except for a real emergency.

        (And before you claim the air belongs to someone else..... it does not. It is RENTED to companies, but the ownership remains with the people, from which all legitimate power derives.)

    • I think that's the same policy telcos have in Egypt and Syria, no?

      I assume the new government in Egypt has not done anything to distinguish itself from Mubarak in that regard aside from maybe cross-their-heart, hope-to-die promising not shut down the Internet and cell phone service unless it's really really super-duper important?

    • Well, that depends on the government official now doesn't it!

      Look at Verizon's wording again:

      "In such cases, wireless carriers need a process for ensuring that the decision to shut down the network has been appropriately vetted and that the request comes from a single, reliable source."

      Pre-911, that wording meant one thing and ONE THING only. A judge.

    • by AK Marc (707885)

      In other words, as long as it comes from a recognized government official, we'll be happy to comply.

      The simpler answer is to not absolve the wireless carriers of liability if they comply. The fear of lawsuits will keep them from making such a decision lightly, official request or not.

  • Never? (Score:3, Interesting)

    by WrongSizeGlass (838941) on Tuesday May 08, 2012 @04:12PM (#39933105)
    It's easy to say "never", but we all could come up with scenarios where it might save lives to cut off service. The big question is "will they ever know about a threat far enough in advance to stop it by cutting cell service?" Probably not.
    • Because terrorists will always decide to go home and not blow up a DIFFERENT group of random people instead of the intended group of random people because they dont know where to go due to no cell service.

      There is no justifiable reason to shut this service off, ever.

      • Re:Never? (Score:5, Funny)

        by squiggleslash (241428) on Tuesday May 08, 2012 @04:33PM (#39933525) Homepage Journal

        I can think of a very obvious case where shutting down a cellphone would save lives: when, if the bastard answers the fucking thing one more time, I'm going to climb over the three rows of cinema seats in front of me and beat him to death with it.

      • I don't agree with ever shutting down communications, ever.

        That being said, there are a number of examples where explosives have been detonated by cellphone. Imagine what a neat and tidy solution that would be if cell service was shut down on a grid where a bomb was placed, thereby negating the detonator... it's wishful thinking at best, sure -- you and I know that -- but we do need to at least attempt to acknowledge this kind of scenario in order to properly combat the arguments of people in favor of th
        • by mrbester (200927)

          Have there between any examples that weren't part of the plot in a police procedural show?

        • by s.petry (762400)

          Think about that logic for a minute. And they will detect that the explosive has a phone detonator how? And disabling a phone number, instead of blacking out the service when they find it is invalid how exactly?

          Now, I really want you to do some reading (but I have doubts you will do so). How many cell phones on legitimate cell phone networks do you think are responsible for the IED explosions in Afghanistan or Iraq? Sorry, but the Jihad does not have the funding to pay for monthly phone plans.

          This is pr

        • by foobsr (693224)

          Imagine what a neat and tidy solution that would be if cell service was shut down on a grid where a bomb was placed, ...

          ... while at the same time shutting down a health and disaster aid network probably in place. Good deal!

          CC.

    • we all could come up with scenarios where it might save lives to cut off service

      The only one I can think of is a situation where a bomb will be triggered by a cell phone receiving a call. Except that a bomb could just as easily be triggered by a cell phone call ending, so shutting the network down would only really work once or twice.

      Of course, that is not the situation that we saw in the BART case. The point of shutting down the phone network there was to stifle protest. Since the government will always claim that protesters are terrorists, the short answer is that the governm

      • by X0563511 (793323)

        and that if the government will start doing so we will need to deploy networks with a less centralized topology

        Shortly followed up with them actively jamming. Believe me, they won't have the power restrictions the rest of us have, so there would be no way to get through that jamming.

      • It's not to stifle process, it's to stop people from live-streaming evidence of police brutality or uploading videos to YouTube before they confiscate and erase / lose / impound your memory card.

        You have to remember where this stems from -- someone filmed 5 RCMP officers engaging in premeditated murder against a Polish Immigrant. If not for the pesky video, the police would have been able to stick to their story since it was the word of 5 police vs one dead guy (or perhaps a handful of "confused, non-exper

      • The entierty of the idea tha shutting down the cellular network will stop a bomb from going off is retarded. If you are already wiring up a bomb with a cellphone trigger, its trivial to add in other deadman's switch mechanisms. In short the whole argument falls flat on its face.
        • But when you point that out, DHS goes "See Congress? There are 'terrowists' (said the same way Elmer Fudd says 'Rabbits') right here @home!"

          Your paranoid 'rulers' are paranoid. And their advisers are bad, and they should feel bad.

    • by Marillion (33728)
      Why are you trying to bring a well reasoned and nuanced ideas into Slashdot?
      While I cannot think of a scenario that would warrant wireless service shutdown I'm sure there are some. I'm also pretty sure that those situations would be severe enough that they should also probably shut down passenger service as well.
      • Why are you trying to bring a well reasoned and nuanced ideas into Slashdot?

        I apologize. I started drinking early today and it appears to have affected my posts ;-)

    • "We could all come up with scenarios" is not an argument. If it's so easy, then post an actual situation! I challenge anyone to come up with one that is remotely realistic. "The terrorists are using it to coordinate their efforts" falls down on a number of points: If you know that, you've intercepted the calls, and can just block or track the individuals! If you know their plans, you're one step ahead of where you would be if you shut down the network and have no idea about their fallbacks. If you cut
      • How about, the terrorists are using a cell phone as a trigger for a bomb i.e. a bomb will explode when a call is received? That really happens in some countries, though those countries do not respond by shutting down the cell system.

        Of course, a bomb can also be triggered by a call ending, so either we stop having cell phones or else we acknowledge that there is no legitimate reason for the government to cut off service.
        • by vlm (69642)

          How, exactly, do you know they work that way? That makes no sense to me. One intelligent design is every time the phone rx a txt message, the reset button on a 5 minute timer is pushed. So 5 minutes after they decide to stop sending texts, or 5 minutes after the phone network is shut down, boom. Seems blindingly obvious to a programmer type. No reason the boom can't be a "OR" function of the txt timer OR a plain ole phone call.

          All I can say is cellphone telemarketers must be a headache for people who d

          • Thank you. The entire 'shut down cellphones to stop a remote trigger' argument rests on an OR function..
        • A bomb can be triggered by a call starting, ending or not being attempted withing a time lapse and combinations.

      • by Nidi62 (1525137)

        "We could all come up with scenarios" is not an argument. If it's so easy, then post an actual situation! I challenge anyone to come up with one that is remotely realistic.

        How about all the rioting and all that that took place in England back in 2011? Rioting seems to me a logical time to shut down cellular communication, as rioters could use cell phones to communicate between groups and avoid police crackdowns, move to new areas, or form new groups/get more people to join. I'm not talking Occupy protests, or what happened in Tahrir Square. I mean when you have major property damage, violence, and injuries. At the very least it would make it that much harder for the riots

    • Yup and we could save lives by only letting truckers and buss drivers on the roads. Life is a risk accept that. Now I am all behind the existing system were the government can prioritize there own wireless traffic in an emergency.

    • by Hentes (2461350)

      we all could come up with scenarios where it might save lives to cut off service

      Then come up with some if it's so easy. You made a bold statement without anything to back it up. As for me, I can't imagine that cutting communications could be helpful in any emergency.

    • And it's easy to imagine fictional scenarios credible enough to request a shutdown while it isn't necessary and for other reasons. Can we trust them to us wisely this power. THAT is THE big question.
  • The government doesn't like demonstrations. [firstamendmentcenter.org] I was at the '08 DNC, inside the 'Freedom Cage' - they're just catching up with the tech trends. The question is, what definition will they hold for "disruption" and "public" - icydrta - "the filing contends that that "balance" must "resonate" in any wireless communications shutdown policy. The Commission should understand that certain situations could present a "credible threat," says the group, and thus, "Interrupting wireless service, when balanced against th
  • Why not just restrict the services that can be used down to emergency services only?

    • Why not allow the government to dictate when people can talk to each other? That is what shutting a communication system down, or restricting the system so that only emergency calls can be made, is doing: restricting how, when, and with whom people can communicate (in a very literal sense).
      • by Jeng (926980)

        I guess my point was why completely disable the system which is easy to make an argument against rather than restrict it to emergency services which is harder to argue against.

        Basically since they are lazy and by shutting it completely down they are having a harder time justifying their actions.

        Your point about them infringing on our freedom of speech is the correct argument to be making though.

  • Unless you are protecting a military asset, keep your hands off the jammer / wire-cutters. Period.

    Find another solution.

  • This pretty much boils down to a principal-agent problem [wikipedia.org]
  • Best time to cut it off.
  • The government wants to be able to squelch protests.

    I think the answer is NEVER.

  • Have them right "I will not turn off Wireless Communications" on a blackboard over and over again until they get the point.
  • Martial law is declared.

    • by Githaron (2462596)
      Actually, martial law is in effect but undeclared. You think government officials would admit to martial law?
  • Martial Law (Score:3, Insightful)

    by Bob9113 (14996) on Tuesday May 08, 2012 @04:51PM (#39933801) Homepage

    Seems like an easy answer to me -- the government has the authority to inhibit free speech any time they declare martial law.

  • ...who is it that has a problem with the 1st amendment?

    There is no complicating this simple straight forward question with any additional babel!
    There is a simple and straight forward reason why it's the FIRST Amendment, not the second or third or any other.

  • It is weak argument that terroist use something so it can be denied everyone. It is one step closer to a police state. Closing down communications also closes down 911 calls, which in that city are I believe numerous and important. If something goes down in a tunnel, people have a right to protect themselves with communications, (like they seem to be able to with concealed weapons in other states).

  • Pretty obvious that would not be a content-neutral restriction on the rights of american citizens.

    Big 1st Amendment problems with shutting down phone lines or radio lines ONLY because you want to keep certain people from talking.

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