The Problem With Standard Operating Procedure 303

INTERNET-KILL-SWITCH-300x2551In 2006, the NCS (National Communications System) approved Standard Operating Procedure 303.  The content of SOP 303 is not available to the general public.

SOP 303 is commonly referred to as the “internet kill-switch.”  It provides an explanation for the “shutdown and restoration process of commercial and private wireless networks during times of national crises.”  The underlying rationale is that it contains information used to deter the triggering of radio activated bombs or IEDs (improvised explosive devices).

If deemed necessary, such a decision would be ordered by homeland security advisors or individuals within the DHS (Department of Homeland Security).  It would be coordinated through the NCC (National Coordinating Center) based on prior input from the NSTAC (National Security Telecommunications Advisory Committee) and other related agencies.  The NCC would be responsible for determining if a shutdown is necessary based on a “series of questions.”

In anticipation of a 2011 San Francisco protest, BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) cut off all cellular service inside four transit stations for a period of three hours.  The BART incident has sparked a renewed interest in the government’s power to shut down internet access and other communication services.

In 2011, the White House asserted that the NSC (National Security Council) and the Office of Science and Technology Policy have the legal authority to control private communications systems in the United States during times of war or other national emergencies.  In 2012, the White House approved an Executive Order seeking to ensure the continuity of government communications during a national crisis.  The DHS was granted the authority to seize private facilities, when necessary, effectively shutting down or limiting civilian communications.  The FCC (Federal Communications Commission) is preparing to implement policies governing the shutdown of communications traffic for the “purpose of ensuring public safety.”

In July of 2012, in accordance with the Freedom of Information Act, EPIC (the Electronic Privacy Information Center) submitted a request to the DHS for:

  • The full text of Standard Operating Procedure 303
  • The full text of the predetermined series of questions that determines if a shutdown is necessary
  • Any executing protocols related to the implementation of Standard Operating Procedure 303, distributed to the DHS and other federal agencies or private companies, including protocols related to oversight of shutdown determinations

In August of 2012, the DHS claimed it was “unable to locate or identify any responsive records” pertaining to this matter.

On February 27, 2013, EPIC filed a lawsuit calling for greater transparency.  The United States District Court for the District of Columbia rejected DHS arguments that its protocols surrounding an internet kill-switch were exempt from public disclosure and ordered the agency to release the records within 30 days.  The court had two overriding concerns:

  • The accuracy of the DHS claim that it would substantially compromise “techniques for law enforcement investigations or prosecutions.”
  • The overly broad interpretation of the safety exemption – “encompassing possible harm to anyone anywhere in the United States within the blast radius of a hypothetically unexploded bomb.”

I suspect the DHS will appeal on the grounds that the release of any such information would directly compromise national security interests.

The generally accepted, public consensus surrounding SOP 303 concerns the hypothetical wireless detonation of bombs or IEDs.  While this does represent a legitimate concern, I believe there is an overlooked matter of even greater importance — artificially generated stampedes.  I would implore EPIC, particularly those presently involved with litigation regarding SOP 303, to familiarize themselves with this national security issue.

Concerning the prospect of artificially generated stampedes, mitigation strategies are neither realistic nor viable.  It’s likely the DHS will assert that declassifying SOP 303 protocol could endanger the lives of citizens in large, confined crowds (particularly NFL and NCAA football stadiums).  Please be aware that such a statement would not only be purposely misleading, but patently false.

This ongoing case will involve sensitive, yet very generic subject matter.  It is an incredibly challenging issue, both legally and conceptually.  It’s my contention that the United States government would prefer this conversation not be held in the public domain.  If you wish to discuss this matter further, please contact me.

Eric Saferstein