Though it seems sinister, the government assures us that this “kill switch” capability is for our own protection. Developed during the George W. Bush administration, the plan is that the executive branch can turn off communication technology in the event of a mass emergency or terrorist attack.
Fortunately, one group is demanding a more thorough explanation. Wanting the government’s plan to be public knowledge, the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) used the Freedom of Information Act to request documents pertaining to the kill switch. A high-ranking judge agreed that the organization’s request was valid and required that the Department of Homeland Security release pertinent documents this month. Courts subsequently extended the release date to January 13, giving the DHS more time to find a way around having to divulge anything.
EPIC hopes that the government will be forced to answer key questions about this emergency protocol like precisely how the technologies will be turned on and off, the potential duration of these outages and whether the DHS can use the kill switch at its own discretion without the president’s approval.
The government’s best argument for shutting down cell service is that cell phones can be used to remotely set off bombs, so disabling these phones is important for safety. However, the case is less clear for the internet. “I find it hard to imagine why an internet kill switch would ever be a good idea, short of some science fiction scenario wherein the network comes alive a la Terminator/Skynet,” said Harold Feld, a technology advocacy expert. “At this point, so much of our critical infrastructure runs on the internet that a ‘kill switch’ would do more harm than anything short of a nuclear strike. It would be like cutting off our own head to escape someone pulling our hair.”
What the government’s plan seemingly fails to take into account is that communication is essential, particularly in emergency situations. People not only are inclined to get in touch with loved ones, but also need the devices to learn the extent of the threat/how to protect themselves. Is the potential of inconveniencing the state’s enemies worth the lives that could have otherwise been spared had the public been able to access critical information?
In many ways, disabling communication technology is actually about the First Amendment. Just look at other countries that have triggered the kill switch on the internet. Syria eliminated the internet when its people rose up against its government. Egyptian leaders similarly blocked most internet and cellphone reception during the country’s protests against Muammar Gaddafi in 2011.
Still, let’s not “other” the problem entirely. San Francisco is guilty of similar tactics. When a protest was planned after a BART police officer shot a homeless man, officials shut down all wireless service around the time of the rally to stop participants from effectively organizing and assembling.
Instead of seeing examples of how shutting down technology “protected” the people, recent history shows how governments can abuse the capability in order to suppress its people. Blocking communication is more likely a ploy for keeping citizens in line and uninformed. The free exchange of information is an essential part of transparency and safeguarding our liberties.
Hopefully, the Department of Homeland Security will be made to disclose its full intentions with the kill switch without all of the usual classified redactions.