The government’s process for shutting down a wireless network is shrouded in both secrecy and controversy.
Amid the chaos in Boston on Monday, The Associated Press erroneously reported that all cell service had been shut down throughout the city out of fear that other bombs might be detonated via mobile phone.
In truth, cell outages had more predictable causes — massive use that overwhelmed the available bandwidth and interfered with calls, texts and Internet access.
Still, the incident pointed to a little-known fact: The government does have a means of shutting down wireless communications and it has been done at least twice. But of course, the idea is controversial.
“For the most part, there is no good reason to do it,” said Parker Higgins, an activist with the Electronic Frontier Foundation.
Higgins’s objection is twofold — it may be unconstitutional and, also, it can easily disrupt rescue efforts and increase public anxiety. Even with overloaded circuits, cellphones were crucial on Monday to summoning emergency workers and allowing people near the blasts to tell relatives and friends they were OK. Phones, Higgins said, are “terribly important as calming devices” that can lower the public’s panic level.
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