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United States Government Privacy The Courts

Court Mulls Revealing Secret Government Plan To Cut Cell Phone Service 191

An anonymous reader writes with the latest in the ongoing legal battle over revealing details of Standing Operating Procedure 303, the government's plan to cut mobile phone service during an emergency. "A federal appeals court is asking the Obama administration to explain why the government should be allowed to keep secret its plan to shutter mobile phone service during 'critical emergencies.' The Department of Homeland Security came up with the plan—known as Standing Operating Procedure 303—after cellular phones were used to detonate explosives targeting a London public transportation system. SOP 303 is a powerful tool in the digital age, and it spells out a 'unified voluntary process for the orderly shut-down and restoration of wireless services during critical emergencies such as the threat of radio-activated improvised explosive devices.'"
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Court Mulls Revealing Secret Government Plan To Cut Cell Phone Service

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  • Hi All you Frogs (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Mister Transistor ( 259842 ) on Monday April 06, 2015 @05:54PM (#49418091) Journal

    Oh! Hi, all you other frogs in here.

    Is this water getting warmer?

    • Oh! Hi, all you other frogs in here.

      Is this water getting warmer?

      Not warm enough if none of them have jumped yet. [snopes.com]

      (Time for that metaphor to die, methinks.)

      • by tmosley ( 996283 )
        He's right, only humans are stupid enough to allow themselves to die in such a manner--see men giving up their seats on lifeboats to women and children on the Titanic.
    • all those tin-star dictator countries where people are fed into the meat grinder if they spit on the sidewalk. dude, shut down my iPhone and I'm throwing my sledgehammer right through your blue-tint screen.

      • all those tin-star dictator countries where people are fed into the meat grinder if they spit on the sidewalk. dude, shut down my iPhone and I'm throwing my sledgehammer right through your blue-tint screen.

        Funny... they never even considered "turning off" land-line phones to prevent them being used to detonate bombs... though they are at least as capable and always have been.

        In fact, a landline phone has enough voltage and current to ignite a fuse or squib all by itself... a lot easier than a cell phone.

    • What? Where am...safeword, safeword!

  • Really? (Score:5, Funny)

    by Anonymous Coward on Monday April 06, 2015 @05:55PM (#49418101)

    "after cellular phones were used to detonate explosives targeting a London public transportation system."

    They better block all frequencies just to be safe. It would also be a good idea to block light and sound too just in case someone uses a "clapper". While they're at it, stop time. The bad guys might use an egg timer.

    • How about they 303 that stupid emergency broadcast system while their at it.

    • mobile networks already have the ability to kick subs off in case of emergency and reserve the bandwidth for the emergency services - its why some Telco employees have two sims and hope to God the second sim never gets activated
    • Re:Really? (Score:5, Insightful)

      by meerling ( 1487879 ) on Monday April 06, 2015 @06:39PM (#49418437)
      And of course nobody in the history of the world has ever thought about a type of deadman switch (possibly software based on a smartphone) where if it doesn't receive a "keep alive" signal at specific intervals or communications are interrupted for more than a very short period, it automatically triggers.
      • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

        You probably got that out of the Anarchist Cookbook! I never read it, but I'm even more sure now that it needs censored!
      • You assume a level of technical capability and desire that typically exists only in TV or film.

        Even when the IRA switched to mobile phones as their method of detonation, they never added a deadmans switch - hell, they never used more than one detonation method in most of their bombs, meaning that when the timer circuit failed the bomb had no chance of going off, resulting in more than a few finds over the years. And this was a heavily financed, technically competent group - hell, they were firing delayed a

      • by houghi ( 78078 )

        Or just a mechanical alarmclock. Or any other form of delay. Or just somebody who pushes the button with everything around his body. Or ....

        There are a gazillion movies, so to be sure, best shut down Hollywood.

    • by gweihir ( 88907 )

      Pathetic! The only safe course of action if there is a possible suspicion of a radio-detonated explosive is to nuke the site! That way we make sure the terrorist do not get to kill anybody! All the patriots that get killed will die in the sure knowledge that they have been serving their country and have been making it safer.

      On the more real side of things, switching off mobile phone networks whenever you have some suspicion is about as useful as nuking things. The terrorists will just revert to generating c

      • On the more real side of things, switching off mobile phone networks whenever you have some suspicion is about as useful as nuking things.

        Against terrorism, yes. But against demonstrations and protests it could be very effective.

        • by gweihir ( 88907 )

          Indeed. An that (like all the surveillance) is the real goal behind this measure: Those in power are very, very afraid of those they are supposed (and have sworn) to serve.

    • For the record, and quite a few of us will probably agree, I would support research into the ability to stop time.

      Even if researched at the super secret level, enough practical stuff would leak out to be really interesting.

      First one to push the button turns the universe into a museum piece for hyper-dimensional creatures, but until then physics would have a field day.

  • But what if the terrorists flip their logic!?
    Their bombs may be on timers and the only way to STOP them from exploding is to call them. Obama is risking lives!
    Hmmmm.... a conundrum.

    • IoT (Score:5, Interesting)

      by OrangeTide ( 124937 ) on Monday April 06, 2015 @06:12PM (#49418231) Homepage Journal

      in a day and age that local cell phone jamming is relatively easy, it seems like the obvious construction is to have a device that must get a text message every interval (1 hour, 1 day, 1 week, whatever) or it triggers.

      an cheap FM radio could be put on a frequency that is not used, and be triggered by a strong signal on that frequency (a bit dangerous, but you're a terrorist, you probably don't give a fuck), or a DTMF decoder-on-a-chip could be packed inside of the radio for a slightly more secure deliver.

      Another option is a rather inexpensive RC toy, or a slightly more expensive hobbyist RC transmitter/receiver combo (not as portable as above). Range can be a few miles if you get the VHF receiver (normally required a HAM license, but terrorists wouldn't care about that)

      802.11 wifi and the passwords for the coffee shops and hotels in range should do the trick and work anywhere. Plus, no need to dial in. You can have it triggered online. Welcome to the Internet of Things, where Things include bombs.

      • I would mod you terrorist, but there isn't an option :(
      • by plover ( 150551 )

        A heartbeat can theoretically be traced, at least to the last RF transmitter in the chain. If that's WiFi, it's a few hundred meters at most. If it's typical home automation, it's 20 meters or so. So, if the Evil Midnight Bomber is being watched, the messages originating from him could be noticed. It's definitely not the stealthiest of options.

        Yes, a transmitter putting out a watt or two would lead to the needle in the haystack scenario, but the bad guys aren't doing that yet.

        • entire internet -> cafe wifi -> trigger is not 20 meters and not easy to trace unless you know to look for cafe's polling HTTP or IRC or XMPP on a frequent basis.

          But who says you can't tie the trigger to a facebook update? I change my profile picture and suddenly a bucket of pigs blood dumps on Carrie's head.

  • So then they simply won't use cell phones, they'll use one of the many other ways of detonating a bomb remotely.
    • It would probably work honestly. It's not like the terrorists are masterminds. These are people that tried to set off a bomb on a plane by lighting their shoe on fire.

  • by Kaenneth ( 82978 ) on Monday April 06, 2015 @05:57PM (#49418135) Homepage Journal

    http://www.theverge.com/2014/1... [theverge.com]

    "The drives even have their own built-in GSM access. If the signal goes quiet for too long, the drive is destroyed."

    Any GSM triggered bomb could also be rigged with a 'fail-dangerous' to detonate if signals are blocked.

    • Re: (Score:2, Funny)

      by Anonymous Coward

      Incoming text:

      "Dear Verizon Customer: Our Terms Of Service have changed, please click on..." *BOOM*

      • Fail deadly (Score:5, Informative)

        by Firethorn ( 177587 ) on Monday April 06, 2015 @06:53PM (#49418517) Homepage Journal

        It's already happened... [wired.com]

        An unexpected and unwanted text message from a wireless company prematurely exploded a would-be suicide bomber’s vest bomb in Russia New Year’s Eve, inadvertently thwarting a planned attack on revelers in Moscow, according to The Daily Telegraph.

        It's also happened in Egypt and a couple other countries that I'm aware of.

        Oh, and some are talking about having the system 'fail deadly'. The 'easy' fix to that is that you keep the 'network connection' up, you simply disable the servers - IE no calls go into the area, nor any texts. You see signal, but all anybody calling you gets is(ideally), 4 rings and voicemail.

        • It's not that hard to detect the network up but not received messages. Dirt cheap phones have enough storage to keep years worth of pre generated sms conversations. Fail to get a few correct SMS's on time, ok well hopefully they don't have AT&T or they will blow up. But same goes for data.

          Long and short of it is blocking communications does not make us safer, with the provision that the bombers assume it will happen.

          • Long and short of it is blocking communications does not make us safer, with the provision that the bombers assume it will happen.

            Elsewhere I mentioned that making the terrorist's job harder isn't an unworthy effort. Fact is, they can always attack. There's always ways around. What you can, and should, do in response is to take actions that make performing an effective attack as difficult as possible.

            That leads to fewer attacks, more failed attacks, etc... Remember, the bombers aren't perfectly skilled, a bomb-maker alone is an expensive and valuable resource for the terrorists. The longer he has to spend per bomb, the fewer bomb

            • Thats not necessarily true there are plenty of things that make bombers and terrorists in general lives harder but should not be done. Often our reactions to terrorism are worse than the terrorism itself. Our politicians go for security theater to show the populace that something is being done.

              The root issue is how open to abuse this is. Pick any major gathering look hard enough and you can find a threat. Cellphones have shown to be a powerful tool of political change and incontrovertible evidence of po

              • Thats not necessarily true there are plenty of things that make bombers and terrorists in general lives harder but should not be done.

                Indeed, ideally speaking it should be like other criminal control efforts - it should disproportionately affect the actual terrorists while ideally being as transparent as possible to regular citizens.

                The problem I have with 'security theater' is that normally it doesn't actually make the terrorist's job harder, while being a massive inconvenience to regular citizens.

                I'm not suggesting letting the government disrupt cellphone traffic 'at will', but only when a specific realistic, and impending threat has be

        • You simply have the local smarphone program read the local SMS, then if it receives some kind of code (encrypted generated from another PC, sent by any regular old phone) on regular basis, nothing happens. then if it receive no "stay unexploded" or receive one with the wrong encryption key, it trigger itself.

          It is simple, if the enemy can cut off your signal, then make the absence of signal the trigger. Deadman switch.
          • 1. Makes the terrorist's job harder - it's more complex programming for the bombs. More things that can go wrong increases the odds of the bomb going off in the wrong location, such as in Russia, where the bomber went off in their own safehouse.
            2. Deadman switch doesn't have the 'to the second' accuracy they want for ideal placement. For many suicide bombings, a matter of minutes, even seconds, can be the difference between dozens of casualties and none.

    • Or if you know that the cell blocking is in place you plant a bomb near where a company is using these drives and there goes their data.

    • by arielCo ( 995647 )

      You can deny service (and thus the incoming call that activates the device) without removing the signal; all phones would remain attached to the network ("have signal") and none the wiser.

      Of course, a smarter device could require as its dead man's trigger a recurring call and go boom when it no longer gets it for some time. The game goes on.

  • Duh (Score:4, Interesting)

    by Aighearach ( 97333 ) on Monday April 06, 2015 @05:58PM (#49418139) Homepage

    Lets say there is a bomb. And it has a phone attached. And you have inside information that it is really connected to a real cell phone. And you don't know where the person is with the other phone. And you know from your inside information that the timer will wait 6 hours before the fail-safe makes it blow up.

    What if it is not a bomb. What if a war breaks out, and you know for a fact that there is an intelligence agent reporting over a regular cell phone, using coded words, about the movements of ships out of a harbor. Cutting off that flow of information while you set sail might be very valuable.

    I'm not arguing for (or against) the wisdom of these policies. But there are obvious and legit reasons for the government to make plans for how to deal with unlikely emergencies.

    They probably also have plans for what to do if we're invaded by Canada. Not because it is likely, but because a nation this large can afford to plan for unlikely things. Some of those unlikely things will actually happen.

    As to this case, the Executive gets to tell the Court that their reason is that their conclusion is that National Security requires it. That it is their opinion makes it a good enough reason, because national security is not the business of the Court. Expect this story to be nothing, and go nowhere. For or against the policy, you should be able to see this approach will not yield any fruit.

    • by hawguy ( 1600213 )

      What if it is not a bomb. What if a war breaks out, and you know for a fact that there is an intelligence agent reporting over a regular cell phone, using coded words, about the movements of ships out of a harbor. Cutting off that flow of information while you set sail might be very valuable.

      What adversary would we going up against that is so powerful that being able to track ships leaving harbors in the USA is useful information for them, yet not so powerful that they have spy satellites or high altitude drones that could give them the same (or better) information as an observer on the ground?

      In any case, this super spy with a cell phone is going to have lots of other ways to communicate these code words, even without a cellular network, he can use Wifi, a plain old analog phone, coded IR ligh

      • In these scenarios, a compatriot on a hilltop is not a concern. They warn each other, no big deal, they didn't warn their nation's Navy.

        Wifi, presumably the internet is also cut at that time. Analog phones, probably just cutting international service would be effective. VHF/UHF will out his exact position, and the other side if he is trying to confirm receipt. Also, that can be jammed easily by standard military equipment. Sat phone is easy to jam, too.

        None of that refutes the wisdom of planning, those are

    • They probably also have plans for what to do if we're invaded by Canada. Not because it is likely, but because a nation this large can afford to plan for unlikely things. Some of those unlikely things will actually happen.

      War Plan Red

      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/W... [wikipedia.org]

    • Lets say there is a bomb. And it has a phone attached. And you have inside information that it is really connected to a real cell phone. And you don't know where the person is with the other phone. And you know from your inside information that the timer will wait 6 hours before the fail-safe makes it blow up.

      That's a "fail dangerous", not a fail safe", as is already discussed, and the answer is: once the timer is going, turning the cell service back on won't stop the bomb.

      What if it is not a bomb. What if a war breaks out, and you know for a fact that there is an intelligence agent reporting over a regular cell phone, using coded words, about the movements of ships out of a harbor. Cutting off that flow of information while you set sail might be very valuable.

      Fail dangerous again: the agent goes quiet, you start a timer. You dispatch another agent to verify. and if that agent goes quiet, too, you hit the launch button.

      I'm not arguing for (or against) the wisdom of these policies. But there are obvious and legit reasons for the government to make plans for how to deal with unlikely emergencies.

      One would hope that they are not plans capable of being disrupted by intellectual midgets with Venn diagrams.

      As to this case, the Executive gets to tell the Court that their reason is that their conclusion is that National Security requires it. That it is their opinion makes it a good enough reason, because national security is not the business of the Court.

      It's an immediate in-camera hearing at a secure facility with only the ju

    • by Kjella ( 173770 )

      They probably also have plans for what to do if we're invaded by Canada. Not because it is likely, but because a nation this large can afford to plan for unlikely things. Some of those unlikely things will actually happen.

      From what I gather that's mostly for training purposes because they don't want to hand out their actual plans and intelligence against real geopolitical enemies beyond a very limited circle and it's a lot more politically accepted. What they really care about is planning the movement of troops, tanks, ships, planes, formations, supply lines, support columns and so on. It's not like they're all that different from the military's point of view.

    • That it is their opinion makes it a good enough reason, because national security is not the business of the Court.

      What, it's not enough to believe scenarios too crazy for a season of 24, you have to be a complete fascist at the same time? My, what a nice blackshirt you have, my dear.

  • Utter madness (Score:5, Insightful)

    by SlaveToTheGrind ( 546262 ) on Monday April 06, 2015 @06:04PM (#49418179)

    As usual, this kind of ham-handed policy will simply inconvenience (or even imperil) tens to hundreds of thousands of innocent, law-abiding people while the criminals will simply switch (if they haven't already) to a different means of remote activation.

    I'd love to say it's unbelievable, but it's becoming sadly predictable.

  • The terrorists used cell phone to coordinate their attacks and coordinate response to police and military actions.

    • The terrorists used cell phone to coordinate their attacks and coordinate response to police and military actions.

      Cell service goes out, you go to a "default plan of action". Pretty simple, if you've thought of a "cut-off while in an operational assignment scenario" in advance.

      • A default plan is less able to react to police/military action. For example there can not be watchers using cell phones warning of approaching troops. Will turning of cell phones stop terrorist attacks? No. Will leaving cell phones on help terrorists? Probably, as demonstrated in Mumbai. Will turning cell phone off make widespread terrorist attacks less effective? Possibly as it will make communications more difficult. In this case anything to make the execution (pun intended) of a terrorist operation is

        • A default plan is less able to react to police/military action.

          I would answer this, but it's starting to feel like you are asking me to write a decision tree playbook for you.

          • I have thought of most of the alternatives. The issue is that no having cell phones available makes widespread terrorist attacks more complex and less effective.

    • Ever heard of walkie-takie?
  • by enigma32 ( 128601 ) on Monday April 06, 2015 @06:17PM (#49418263)

    Why.... is this government completely inept?
    This would totally work. Except for WiFi, 433mhz industrial radios (easily available), CBs, ham radios, family band radios (from walmart, target, etc.), never mind anyone who was really serious about whatever they wanted to do and went through the effort of acquiring wireless communication gear not so commonly available.

    This is a fine example of how DHS is *reactionary* and a complete waste of my tax dollars.

    • Re:Why.... (Score:5, Insightful)

      by Attila Dimedici ( 1036002 ) on Monday April 06, 2015 @06:23PM (#49418309)
      No, this is not ineptness. They found an excuse to justify shutting off cellphones in case of mass protests which the government does not approve of.
      • This is exactly right. This what the Bart police did to protesters in 2011 [washingtonpost.com].

        Obviously, the problem was not that the Bart police shot a protester in the back while he was handcuffed and lying face down (see video at 1:25 [youtube.com]). It was that too many people filmed the incident with their cell phone cameras and that not all the cell phones could be confiscated in time before the content could be uploaded to the internet.

        By shutting down cell networks, you no longer have to worry about people streaming your actions on

    • Wifi: Lower range (and if you're looking for an internet connection, that can be shut off as well)
      industrial radios: More expensive, easily tracked & jammed
      CBs: You'd have to roll your own trigger system to avoid early detonation from random transmissions.
      Ham radios - more expensive, and the equipment/antenna would generally be too large.
      Family band - more expensive(probably), and you'll need to be careful to prevent detonation from a random transmission.

      Increasing the work the terrorist has to go thr

      • And of course there is the fact that such events are most commonly set to all go off together so by the time the Feds react to the first boom, and issue the order to shut down the cell networks, all the other bombs have also detonated. And now mass panic ensues because family members can't reach out and confirm safety to one another.

        Real life attacks are rarely if ever as scripted out as in the movies, which is the only place you find an evil mastermind who sets a series of timed bombs being set off at dif
        • "most commonly" would only be about half the time. They fairly frequently will try to time secondary bombs, if they have any(single explosion is the most normal), to catch the first responders. Matter of fact, I'd rate that as about equal in probability to simultaneous detonations in multiple bomb events.

          Combine that with that we do actually occasionally get intelligence about an upcoming bombing attempt and can thus take proactive action.

          For that matter 'we've found a bomb, turn on the jammers!' is an op

    • by Sowelu ( 713889 )

      And yet despite all those other options being available, people still use plain old cell phones to do it in other countries, which is one big reason why sandy places with a much higher rate of terror attacks already have these plans in place. I used to see news stories about them shutting down cell service to stop attacks every once in a while, and I suppose it probably worked sometimes, in that weird confluence of intel that's good enough to know an attack is coming and how, but not where.

      Yeah, anyone doi

  • The government has no right at all to effectively, even temporarily, lobotomize the citizenry. Cutting off mobile communications and apps is just that.

  • Now might be a good time to invest in CB Radios or a HAM license [arrl.org] and station.
    • If you suddenly are in the position where you'll need to be transceiving on the radio spectrum because of a government implemented blackout of cell service, I doubt that whether or not you passed the 35-question Technician multiple-choice test is going to mean jack shit to you if you have to break the law to do it...good buddy.

    • Or, just buy the HAM hardware. Who cares about whether or not you're licensed if you're in a situation where the government that issues those licenses is deliberately killing off your means of communication.
    • Now might be a good time to invest in CB Radios or a HAM license [arrl.org] and station.

      The only laws that would exist under that situation would be those that can be enforced at gunpoint. A license for HAM equipment would be the least of your worries.

  • Ridiculous (Score:4, Informative)

    by Gnaythan1 ( 214245 ) on Monday April 06, 2015 @07:19PM (#49418693)

    They wouldn't shut down all cell phone service over a bomb threat. They'd shut it down to stop an organized flash mob.

    But the flash mob is already working on specific apps that do not need a working cell tower to run. The serval project and firechat come to mind. both can contact other smart phones without needing a cell tower. plus people are working on p-cells and modified routers that can work as cell towers just fine in very limited areas, Microsoft is working on white space routers that can handle thousands of transactions at once, and is testing it in several places. not to mention the 802.22 standard already implemented for a router with a 40 mile range.

    So the stingray is a police run cell tower designed to track phones by their sim or imei handshake. Is already up and running in most places, but doesn't actually carry traffic.So what would stop the government from using stingray to "brick" all phones through an over-the-air signal?

    But then again, a rooted phone can probably be set to ignore that....

    and the dance continues.

  • by Trailer Trash ( 60756 ) on Monday April 06, 2015 @09:50PM (#49419491) Homepage

    "But on August 11, 2011, however, BART took an unprecedented step. Under orders from BART police, the system shut down underground wireless service for three hours. The interruption covered stations in downtown San Francisco. In a statement, administrators clearly identified “organizers planning to disrupt BART service . . . us[ing] mobile devices to coordinate their disruptive activities and communicate about the location and number of BART Police” as the rationale behind the move."

    https://www.aclu.org/blog/tech... [aclu.org]

    It has nothing to do with "bombs". We had to get the patriot act in order to fight terrorists.

    "Of the 22,741 warrants issued since 2003, 21,838 (96%) were issued under the heading of "Narcotics."

    https://www.techdirt.com/artic... [techdirt.com]

    How many times are we going to fall for this trick?

  • I was thinking when the cellphones go down in major disaster,
    http://www.qsl.net/n/n0drc/Oth... [qsl.net]
  • 1. Text messages can get through when voice calls will never get through. Even if you have zero bars, there's a good chance it will get through. Get some elevation if you can to increase your chances of reaching a non-congested cell.

    2. If you happen to find a genuine payphone, international trunks may still be active, even if local and national ones aren't. Call a friend in another country, and ask them to relay messages to whoever you need. (I used this during 9/11 to bypass the damage in Manhattan.

  • by rickb928 ( 945187 ) on Tuesday April 07, 2015 @12:11AM (#49420095) Homepage Journal

    One of those words does not mean what you hope it means.

  • Because there's no other way to trigger from miles away, current off the shelf RC hobby tech is plenty powerful with FPV applications being able to transmit over 5 miles. Cell signal not required, and electronics are small in size.
  • The government has protocols for all types of crazy situations. It is usually better to come up with a plan when you have some time to discuss options than on the fly. Many of these protocols have never been used and never will.

    I think what we are concerned about is when the government USES the protocol. Certainly there would be improper uses of it, and that is what should be at issue.

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