Boston Marathon Cell Phone Service Outages a Cause For Concern

The unexpected has happened. A dangerous situation has left you uncertain about the status of a loved one and about what to do next. In these situations, we’re all increasingly thankful for technologies like the internet and our mobile phones, which can provide comfort through communication and information.

The runners and supporters who attended this year’s Boston Marathon were thrust into tragic and uncertain circumstances on April 15, as an apparent coordinated attack set off two explosions near the race’s finish line. In the moments after, Boston telephone service providers experienced a large spike in network activity as witnesses shared stories, and families and friends sought to ensure each other’s safety.    

Amidst all of the frantic reporting in Boston, early Associated Press reports indicated that Boston police had commanded service providers to shutdown cell phone service in the interest of public safety and “to prevent any potential remote detonations of explosives.” However, Mother Jones then reported this was false and that cell services were merely overloaded. Verizon, Sprint and AT&T phone companies have since indicated that no such request for service interruption was made by the police and that any service failures were due to overwhelming increased activity. This is good news for the First Amendment and for the safety of everyone affected that day.

The possibility of state initiated phone service suspension is all too real, however. In August 2011, officers in California’s Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) system pulled the plug on underground cell phone service in an effort to undermine expected protests after the police shooting of Oscar Grant. BART itself owned its underground tunnel networks, and unilaterally suspended service without needing the help of a service company (Verizon, Sprint, etc …). 

The BART scenario was uncharted territory for the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) back in 2011, and Monday’s rumor about a service cut in Boston has reopened the discussion of whether government officials should be able to intentionally interrupt cell service to protect public safety. 

I believe that such authority would not only threaten freedom of speech, but the act of suspending communication and/or internet service for Americans during a time of crisis is itself a threat to public safety. The explosion in wireless communication over the last decade has correlated with a reduction in public payphones, and cutting cellular service in times of crisis will serve to isolate victims and families who desperately need contact. Further, it chokes the public’s ability to transmit vital information via emergency call centers, news outlets, or social media. 

There may be rare situations in which a particular communication actually functions as the direct source of disaster — a cell phone bomb detonator, for instance. The Department of Homeland Security has adopted something called “Standard Operating Procedure 303” to set rules for these rare circumstances when service disruption should occur, and how. SOP303 continues to be problematic, however, because despite several Freedom of Information Act requests and lawsuits from transparency watchdog groups, the details of this protocol are kept private. According to the Electronic Frontier Foundation, "The executive branch, untethered by the checks and balances of court oversight, clear instruction from Congress, or transparency to the public, is free to act as it will and in secret."

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Billy Buntin

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