By KYW tech editor Ian Bush
PHILADELPHIA (CBS) — There was a report in the hours after the Boston bombings that the feds had shut down cell service in the city to try to prevent any other detonations. That wasn’t true — but it wouldn’t have been the first time the government took such dramatic action.
In a years-old security bulletin, the government warned people not to use cell phones when pressure cooker bombs are suspected because it could trigger an explosion.
The feds didn’t shut down the wireless service in Boston amid the bombings, but they have taken that step in the past — such as after the London subway bombings in 2005:
“Those bombs — having been detonated by cell phones — alarmed American Homeland Security folks, so they shut down cell phone use in the tunnels going to and from Manhattan,” says Politico senior technology reporter Steve Friess.
But it’s unclear how the government does it.
“There’s no transparency,” Friess says. “There’s no process that we’re aware of. Apparently there’s a secret plan that the government has — they don’t publicize it and it’s hard to get information about it.”
With few details, we’re forced to speculate on what the feds weigh when making the decision to shut down cell service: averting disaster from an unknown number of bombs versus the chaos and danger from severing a crucial communications link. And we’re left to wonder what happens to public safety officials who need cell phones to communicate and aren’t on a priority network? To reporters, passing along critical information? And for the rest of us who need cell phones to make sure our loved ones are safe?
“They’re critical calming devices,” Friess says. “They keep people from losing their minds when they’re worried about friends and family. Just knowing it works helps to prevent riots, and helps to prevent people making bad decisions.”