Cellphone service interruption : the price of security?

Uncertainty reigns as to whether authorities are contemplating shutting off wireless services during planned protests against the NATO summit. Here, Chicagoans use cellphones and tablets at Federal Plaza. (Ben Schamisso)

Chicagoans interviewed in the Loop on Tuesday voiced strong and conflicting opinions on whether the authorities have the right to interrupt wireless service during street demonstrations planned against May’s NATO summit.

“I don’t believe the police should interrupt anybody’s service unless they have a very good profile on a certain person,” Iola Jarvies, a retired woman, said. “Power is just a slippery slope” she added. “They are abusing their power.”

On the other hand, “the U.S. does have a right to go through cellphone connections and interrupt them if they see a threat,” claimed Anas Yousuf, a student in management information service at De Paul University. “Especially when all the leaders are coming here.”

“I’ve seen it before,” said Trevor Kay, a student in sports management marketing at Columbia College. “It’s like going to a Cubs game . . . They don’t interrupt service but it’s almost impossible to get service because there are so many people.”

Still, deliberately jamming wireless service is a different story, Kay observed. “In times when there could be more violence, it’s good to have your cell phones on,” he said.

Chicago Alderman Ricardo Munoz (22nd) introduced a proposal in the City Council meeting on Feb. 15 to limit the ability of the Chicago police to shut down wireless networks during the NATO summit.

Unaware of whether the authorities were envisaging to shut down the services or not, the alderman said he wanted to act pre-emptively.

“This is the first G8/NATO summits on American soil in the age of Twitter, and we want to be sure people are able to communicate because communication is good,” the alderman said, according to WMAQ-TV’s website. He spoke before the removal of the G8 meeting to Camp David, Maryland.

“What’s happened in the past is that usually governments tend to want to be restrictive as a knee-jerk reaction” Munoz added. “What we’re saying is that we don’t want this to be one of the tools in your toolbox.”

The issue has more than local significance.

Last year the authoritative Egyptian government shut off Internet services amid soaring protests from dissidents.

In the U.S., San Francisco’s Bay Area Rapid Transit interrupted cellphone connections for three hours in some stations last summer, to prevent protests in response to the shooting of a man by a BART police officer.

Amid concerns voiced by civil liberties groups, Federal Communications Commission Chairman Julius Genachowski issued a public notice last Thursday, seeking guidance from interested parties “on the legal constraints and policy considerations” that ensuring public safety by interrupting services would bear.

“We are pleased that the Commission is looking into this very important issue,” said Harold Feld, the legal director of Public Knowledge, an organization that strives to preserve public access to the Internet and knowledge.

“The same wireless network that police see as a tool for rioters to coordinate is the same wireless network used by peaceful protestors to exercise our fundamental freedoms,” he said, referring to some commentators’ concerns that wireless devices can be used to trigger explosives and to organize violent flashmobs.

This piece was published by the Medill News Service