Free Markets, Free People

Cell phone jamming: violation of civil rights or good law enforcement tactic?

I come down on the side of the former – a violation of my civil rights.  When does the government unilaterally get to decide  if I’m able to talk to someone (or communicate by other means, such as Twitter) on a device I’ve contracted with a private company and for which they provide service?  When it sees a compelling public safety risk. 

And what would define that public safety risk?    Well that’s kind of up in the air.  Take the expected riots in Chicago for the NATO summit.

Apparently that qualifies

According to the Daily Beast, a little known Bush era regulation gives law enforcement the ability to jam cell phones … you know like they did in Tehran when the people attempted to stand up to their government.  Or Syria?

Not only do the FBI and Secret Service have standing authority to jam signals, but they along with state and local authorities can also push for the shutdown of cell towers, thanks to a little-known legacy of the Bush administration: “Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) 303," which lays out the nation’s official “Emergency Wireless Protocols.”

The protocols were developed after the 2005 London bombings in a process that calls to mind an M.C. Escher work. First, the National Security Telecommunications Advisory Committee (NSTAC) formed a task force— composed of anonymous government officials and executives from Cingular, Microsoft, Motorola, Sprint, and Verizon—that issued a private report to President Bush. Another acronym-dragging committee, also meeting in secret, then approved the task force’s recommendations. Thus, according to NSTAC’s 2006–07 annual issue review, SOP 303 was born.

"In time of national emergency," the review says, SOP 303 gives “State Homeland Security Advisors, their designees, or representatives of the DHS Homeland Security Operations Center” the power to call for “the termination of private wireless network connections… within an entire metropolitan area.” The decision is subject to review by the National Coordinating Center, a government-industry group responsible for the actual mechanics of the shutdown. The NCC is supposed to “authenticate” the shutdown via “a series of questions.” But SOP 303 does not specify, at least not publicly, what would constitute a “national emergency,” or what questions the NCC then asks “to determine if the shutdown is a necessary action.”

“[T]he termination of private wireless network connections …”.  That should send a chill up your spine.  This is the realm of dictatorship. 

What if I have nothing to do with whatever the disturbance in the area might be?  What if I have an emergency?  What if I can’t get to a land line?  Who in the hell are these people to deny me access to a private service I pay for and they don’t?

And all for their convenience, because that’s the point.  Protesters use wireless services and social media like Twitter to organize.

Instead of Law Enforcement learning to monitor that and react sufficiently well to blunt its effect, they prefer to use the sledge hammer approach and shut down service to all in an area.

I have a contract with a provider.  That provider agrees to provide me uninterrupted service for payment.  I pay.  Government decides to void that contract at its own whim and possibly endanger my life and safety by doing so.

Oh, and here’s a little ground truth:

“It’s the nature of law enforcement to push the envelope,” said Eugene O’Donnell, a former New York City police instructor and professor of police practice at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice. “It’s act first and litigate second.”

Understatement of the year.  For instance:

While it’s against the law for individuals or nongovernmental organizations to sell or use jammers, the devices are easily found online. The U.S. military was among the first to use communications shutdowns, and local government demand for the technology has been building for years, even as the legal rules for its use have remained ill-defined. Prison wardens want to snuff out the use of smuggled cellphones by inmates; school officials hope to disable students’ phones; the National Transportation Safety Board wants to disable all “portable electronic devices within reach of the driver” while cars are in motion.

I’m sure you can dream up many more rights abusing nanny state scenarios (yeah, jamming illegal prison cell phones actually seems legit) than those listed.  Imagine a state banning cell phone use in cars and installing jammers along all major highways.  Imagine a car wreck with injuries.  Imagine the law suits to follow.

For once the ACLU and I are on the same side:

The ACLU, Verizon, and a coalition of public-interest groups noted that cellphone blackouts would, with few exceptions, violate the Constitution and federal communication law, as well as threaten public safety by eliminating the means to share vital information or call 911.


Now other efforts to cut through the legal haze have emerged. In response to the wireless shutdown in San Francisco last summer, California State Sen. Alex Padilla introduced what would be a first-of-its-kind bill stipulating that to cut off service a judge must sign off that the move is necessary to avert “significant dangers to public health, safety or welfare.” If approved, the bill, which has the backing of the American Civil Liberties Union, could become the gold standard for state policy. San Francisco transit officials codified their own policy, which remains quite vague, after the public backlash to their shutdown. It calls for “strong evidence” of dangerous and unlawful activity, a belief that an interruption will “substantially reduce the likelihood of such an activity” and that the interruptions are “narrowly tailored.”

No.  That agrees to the premise that government should have that power and then tries to define it “narrowly”.  I don’t agree with the premise of government’s right to do this.  If they want to talk about an exceptional power in time of a declared National Emergency, I’m willing to listen.  But we all know how wide “narrowly” becomes when law enforcement is given an ability to use such a power.  They’ll use it for their convenience, screw your rights.


Twitter: @McQandO

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14 Responses to Cell phone jamming: violation of civil rights or good law enforcement tactic?

  • violation of civil rights or good law enforcement tactic?

    Yes.  As usual.  And as ALWAYS.
    You’re a little Chicken Little here, McQ.  The cops can keep you off the streets, too.  They can do lots of things in an extremity they do not think of doing otherwise.

    “It’s the nature of law enforcement to push the envelope,” said Eugene O’Donnell

    Wul, yah…  And it’s the nature of civil libertarians to push back.  Always has been since the Founding.  Really NOTHING new here, McQ

    • New enough I don’t like it or support it. Different enough that “cops keeping me off the streets” doesn’t even begin to compare.

    • They could do it with Ma Bell and your land lines, too.  LONG ago.
      This isn’t a new thing under the sun.  Not at all.  And my right to chat AT ALL MOMENTS IN TIME with Gladys about her fruit salad really would not stand against stopping a Mumbai event in the pantheon of rights.
      I figure most rational people agree.  As we would agree that this is an emergency power…like forcing you off the streets…that CANNOT be allowed to propagate OUTSIDE an emergency.

      • Don’t care. On my radar screen now. Not good … unacceptable. To broad in its implementation, breaches private contracts and can and will put innocent people in jeopardy. No go.

        • The point of the original legislation was preventing remote detonations.

          • That actually makes sense. So back to the point about “It’s the nature of law enforcement to push the envelope,” obviously shutting down service because of protests isn’t what it was designed to do, is it? Yet here we are …

    • You have to ask the question, “How would law enforcement respond if their communications were cut off ?”
      Jamming communications, even spread-spectrum communications aren’t really that hard to jam

  • Is cell phone access really a Civil Right?
    This one strikes me as a privilege.  Recently they shut down phone access on subways in New York, right?  I can’t see a ‘right’ of any sort to use a phone whenever I want to even if I AM paying for it.  For example, I accept that in certain areas my phone won’t work just because coverage is not available.  The cell could be down where you are, there could be dead zones, all of which could, even on a daily basis, render you unable to make a call, and fulfilling the threat conditions where you really NEED that phone.
    There are many things we accept law enforcement/government will do with our personal property that prevents us from having free use of it at certain times.
    I’m going with privilege on this one, even though, under the right circumstances, it would be a life saving privilege.  I fully expect if cell coms is ALL they shut down we’d be lucky.  ANY centralized communications, Internet, cell towers, phone exchanges, broadcast radio, television…that’s why the banana republics always show up with armor at those locations during a coup.
    Cell really ISN’T any different and now they’re making it official because THEY finally realized it.

  • Problem is law enforcement will use it ham-handedly and abusively. A lot of them are close to out of control

  • Shirt, don’t let the lefties see us rationally disagreeing, their heads might explode before the cognitive dissonance override kicks in. we’re supposed to be some kind of monolithic block of mentally incompetent conservative facist right wing anarchists.

  • Two words:
    HAM radio.