By Dana Liebelson
This month, the United States District Court for the District of Columbia ruled that the Department of Homeland Security must make its plan to shut off the internet and cellphone communications available to the American public. You, of course, may now be thinking: What plan?! Though President Barack Obama swiftly disapproved of ousted Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak turning off the internet in his country to quell widespread civil disobedience in 2011, the US government has the authority to do the same sort of thing, under a plan that was devised during the George W. Bush administration. Many details of the governments controversial “kill switch” authority have been classified, such as the conditions under which it can be implemented and how the switch can be used. But thanks to a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit filed by the Electronic Privacy Information Center EPIC, DHS has to reveal those details by December 12—or mount an appeal. The smart betting is on an appeal, since DHS has fought to release this information so far. Yet heres what we do know about the governments “kill switch” plan:
What is a kill switch? A kill switch refers to the government’s authority to disconnect commercial and private wireless networks—affecting both cellphones and the internet—in the event of an emergency, such as a viable threat of a terrorist attack.
How does a kill switch work? There isn’t any kind of big red button the Obama administration can push to turn off the wireless networks in the United States. Instead, there are a few ways the federal government could exercise its power to shut down and restore internet and cellphone service (see below). It’s also unlikely that a “kill switch” would cause a nationwide blackout. Instead, the government is explicitly authorized to target a “localized area”—such as a bridge—or potentially an “entire metropolitan area,” according to a recent Government Accountability Office report. (Both DHS and the White House declined to comment for this article.)