What is being branded to us as a victory for consumers is actually another attack on our First Amendment rights
This past Monday, California Governor Jerry Brown signed into law SB 962. The cellphone kill switch law. The bill requires all cell and smart phones in California to have a mandatory “kill switch” installed by July 1, 2015. The same law was signed in Minnesota in 2013.
The law is being touted as a victory for California consumers, but I don’t see it that way. The law was passed supposedly because there have been too many cellphone thefts and insurance claims for their replacement.
My first thought was that this bill will save a lot money for insurance companies, not make things better for consumers. After some research though, I learned that insurance companies are afraid they will lose the nice premiums they collect every month. My second thought was this is just another step our government is taking to limit our First Amendment Rights when they see fit.
The police and cell phone providers already have the capability to kill your cellphone, but the backlash from citizens has led to outrage. A Federal lawsuit against the Department of Homeland Security was filed in 2012 in regards to an incident in California which more than likely helped to fuel the passing of this cellphone kill switch law.
On July 3, 2011, a Bay Area Rapid Transit (“BART”) officer in San Francisco shot and killed a homeless man, Charles Hill. The officer alleged later that Hill had attacked him with a knife and that he had acted in self-defense.
The death sparked a major protest against BART a week later. Though the protests disrupted service at several transit stations, no one was injured. A second protest was planned one month later, but was cut short after BART officials cut off all cellular service inside four transit stations for a period of three hours. This act prevented any individual on the station platform from sending or receiving phone calls, messages, or other data.
The incident with BART set off a renewed interest in the government’s power to shut down access to the internet and other communication services. A 2011 Report from the White House asserted that the National Security Council and the Office of Science and Technology Policy have the legal authority to control private communications systems in the United States during times of war or other national emergencies.
The Federal Communications Commission plans to implement policies governing the shutdown of communications traffic for the “purpose of ensuring public safety”. Also in 2012, the White House signed an executive order seeking to ensure the continuity of government communications during a national crisis.
As part of this executive order, The Department of Homeland Security was granted the authority to seize private facilities, when necessary, effectively shutting down or limiting civilian communications. SB962 just expands upon this on the state level and makes it legal to shut down cell phones on a whim.
Having lost an iPhone, I called Apple and they instructed me to go to their website, enter some identifying information, and I shut down the phone myself, but I still needed a replacement. I paid a $100 deductible for the $9.99 insurance plan I purchase and received a refurbished iPhone.
SB 962 is not about consumers, it’s about law enforcement having the lawful ability to shut down any access to communication, photos or video.
The bill allows law enforcement to kill cell phone use on a mass scale in the case of certain situations and typically requires a court order, except in an emergency that poses “immediate danger of death or great bodily injury.” This action is supported by existing section 7908 of the California Public Utilities Code.
For example, having grown up in Los Angeles, I have lived through a few riots, specifically the Rodney King riots. Although I did not live in the vicinity of where the riots and looting were taking place, I did live close enough that if I had needed emergency services (and owned a cell phone at that time) I might not have had access to calling 911.
After seeing the crackdown of the Occupy protests around the country a few years back and more recently the protests in Ferguson, Missouri, I seriously wonder if these cellphone kill switches would have been used if they were lawfully available.
These kind of laws start out one way and then end up being abused for various unwarranted reasons. Remember when the NSA claimed they were only spying on terrorist activities? The police in this country already have military grade equipment, rifles and vehicles. Now they will have a new one at their disposal to suppress protesters and other malcontents. If the experts are right, this law will soon go national.
For a protest to grow and mean something, quick communication is key. Take a look at the Tunisian Revolution as an example. Now in California, the powers that be have the legal means to cut it off at the knees. The first rule of attacking an enemy is knocking out their means to communicate.
Step by step, we are losing our personal freedom (and First Amendment rights) in the name of security. Even when they say it’s what’s best for us consumers. And as always, there is barely a whimper about it. If you are ever at a protest, be aware that even in the perceived fear of civil unrest, you do not have control of your phone.