Big Brother’s Cell Phone “Kill Switch”

After roundly criticizing other governments for using technology to disable cell phone usage at certain times and in certain areas in order to limit and control public demonstrations, governments from San Francisco to London are warming to the practice themselves. 

During mass protests earlier this year against the dictatorial regimes of Hosni Mubarak in Egypt and Muammar Gaddafi in Libya, those government took actions to stop the flow of information over the Internet and social websites.  The United States was among the first and most vocal critics o such moves. 

Unfortunately, the temptation to use such a tool in the democratized world to control the populace is proving too strong to ignore, despite impediments to such practices in our Constitution. 

In Britain, Prime Minister David Cameron recently threatened to block access to social networking sites – including Facebook and Twitter – and Blackberry Messenger that were being used to organize riots. 

This Orwellian tactic is now being employed in the United States. Earlier this month, for example, officials from the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) system in San Francisco disabled cell phone service for an entire area to prevent a planned protest at one of its stations.  According to statements they made to the media in the aftermath of this episode, BART officials took such action simply because the transit agency “feared” there might be violence at the planned demonstration.  The government apparently did not even seriously consider the need to present its case to a court before instituting such drastic action. 

Actions such as these raise the the specter of even more far-reaching capabilities in the hands of government agencies to limit the ability of citizens to communicate.  

For example, the CIA already has access to an “independent” company, In-Q-Tel, which serves as a bridge between the government and dozens of technology and communications-related companies through investments and partnerships. A sister agency, the National Security Agency has collected phone call records for millions of Americans – amassing the “largest database ever assembled in the world,” according to USA Today

Even more broadly, legislation has been introduced in past sessions of Congress that would give a president an Internet “kill switch,” to be activated in the event of a perceived cybersecurity threat. Supporters of the proposal, including Sen. Joseph Lieberman, argue that because other countries such as China have such capability to control their citizenry, so must the United States.  

In fact, according to some interpretations of current law, the president already has the power to take such action. Jon Orlin wrote earlier this year at, that Section 706 of the Communications Act of 1934, which created the FCC, “gives the president authority, in a state or threat of war, to ‘cause the closing of any facility or station for wire communication’ with no advance warning.” 

A broad reading of legal authorities such as Orlin’s, fits perfectly with the post-911 mind set in Washington that a president’s “responsibility” to protect national security is virtually limitless; and trumps even express legal prohibitions.  As Orlin also notes, the Department of Homeland Security already has cited the 1934 Act as one of the powers “the president would rely on if the nation was under a cyberattack.” 

Whether the perceived “threat” is as broad as a cyberattack, or as narrow as a political demonstration or a rally against police brutality, placing in the hands of government bureaucrats the absolute power to summarily disable the ability of citizens to communicate, is a frightening notion.  It also is one clearly at odds with the language and the intent of the Constitution our forebears crafted to prevent just such actions.

by Bob Barr, The Barr Code

65 comments Add your comment

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Off the Clock

August 22nd, 2011
10:46 pm

@Let the Big Dawg Eat (11:43 am)

You’re assuming that we’re all on the job when you remark about paying our employers the money for our time on this page :) Well, guess what? We’re not ALL slaves here. And for those who do not work anything in Retail – retail employers have started claiming the right to regulate off-the-clock behaviour, demanding that we do not embarass or blow the whistle on employees of any company who could be a customer.

To the rest of you who say we must be protected from dangerous things:

My freedom of speech is dangerous – I’ve called in on two banks this year on insolvency and waste in operations, and later they were shut down, I’ve personally started boycotts that have costed small businesses millions of dollars. I’ve done the horrible, controversial, thing of calling in bank tellers (two of them) who have pocketed my cash deposits instead of quietly asking for a “correction” to be made.

So – does that mean I somehow need the Government to regulate my so-called “dangerous” free speech?


August 23rd, 2011
12:42 pm

Good overview here Mr.Barr. The fedgov will leverage “crisis(es)” (legit or manufactured) to continue & usurp our Constitutional rights…in the name of “homeland defense” or some other excuse. It’s indeed about the establishment of an Orwellian, totalitarian police state.

Risk Evaluation

August 24th, 2011
11:59 am

There may be a time and a place for a “kill switch”, but this planned protest was not it. Their fear that there “may” be violence was was given more weight than the reality that there are pregnant women, teens and elderly citizens who are dependent on their cellphones in times of emergencies. Not only is it taking away constitutional rights, but it is placing certain sectors at a greater risk. My mom is not in great health, and relies entirely on her SVC phone. While it may cost her very little to own, it makes it pointless to even own if, when she needs it most, she can’t use it. How many other seniors were placed at risk when they made this call?


August 24th, 2011
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