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Network shutdowns, secure communications and the Olympics

It was recently reported that President Obama has signed an executive order giving the Department of Homeland Security powers to prioritize government communications in emergencies, and to effectively seize control of telecommunications companies. In the run up to the Olympics, questions have been asked about whether the British state has similar powers.

Under section 132 of the Communications Act 2003, the Secretary of State can compel Ofcom to order a telecommunications company to suspend services. This could happen if the company in question was in breach of a condition of its licence - but the provision has never been invoked.

More pertinent is section 20 of the Civil Contingencies Act 2004 which gives senior ministers of the Crown substantial powers in the event of emergencies, which would include switching off all or some of a telecommunication provider's network or service.

However, the most likely route would be the little known Mobile Telecommunications Privileged Access Scheme (MTPAS), which was launched on 1st September 2009. Under the scheme, the police can instruct any mobile network operator to shut down certain geographical areas of the network to all devices except those with an MTPAS SIM card. This could potentially restrict the use of a network to the army, security forces or emergency services. Any instruction to invoke MTPAS must come from the Police Gold Commander at the relevant law enforcement team. As far as we know, it has only ever been invoked once, during the 7/7 bombings (via its precursor system, ACCOLC).

In conjunction with MTPAS, a secure and resilient mobile telecommunications system for the Emergency Services called Airwave can be used that even provides signal on the London Underground. A private mobile radio service called Apollo has been created for LOCOG (London Organising Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games) to provide coverage for up to 18,000 staff and volunteers across all London 2012 venues. 


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