It's July 2012, and despite all the precautions - including the most intrusive surveillance exercise ever mounted and the detention of hundreds of suspects under draconian emergency powers - London is under terrorist attack. Social networks are buzzing with rumours and video clips of military units clad in chemical warfare suits gathering outside the Bank of England, where hostages are being held.
In the Cobra emergency room under Whitehall, officials from the Cabinet Office, the Ministry of Defence and the Metropolitan Police ponder their options. Someone mentions Mumbai 2008, when Twitter became the uncontrolled but main source of news, flooding in at the rate of 12 Tweets a second. A decision is taken to seize control of the flow of information from anywhere near the scene of the attack.
The UK government already has the legal power and technical ability to do it, and contingency plans for filling the information vacuum from official sources.
Step one is to shut down all unofficial mobile communications in the capital. The plan, drawn up by the Directorate of Civil Contingencies and drawing on the lessons of the 2004 Madrid bombings, as well as the July 7 2005 attacks in London, is for a carefully tiered approach, to avoid public panic and political flak.
Close to the hostage sites, the security forces have already deployed jammers to render the terrorists' GSM and 3G phones - and other wireless devices - unusable. To extend control over the whole network, the Cabinet Office instructs licensed phone operators to restrict calls to numbers registered in advance. Under the telephone preference scheme, a condition of operating licences, this can be done at the flick of a switch. No public announcement is made; frustrated Londoners trapped behind security cordons and trying desperately to phone home assume that the network is simply overloaded.
Step two is to tackle "unhelpful" information on the web. With no time to issue legal takedown notices, the Cobra committee authorises GCHQ to begin denial-of-service attacks. The British public, suddenly bereft of its favourite channels of communication, reverts to the time-honoured technologies of broadcast radio and television - and newspapers.
This isn't fantasy. Whitehall sources acknowledge that such plans to shut down Britain's electronic information infrastructure exist, though no one is prepared to go in to details. However, one clue is the extent of measures being put in place to ensure that official communications operate separately from civilian networks.
The principal communications system, used by the military and security services as well as police, fire and ambulance crews, is the Airwave digital radio. The system, based on the Tetra standard (similar to GPRS), was sold as being secure and resilient. The network's 3,500 transmission stations across the UK operate independently of civilian mobile networks, the operator says. For example, all have backup power batteries, and one third have on-site generators to keep them running for seven days. Likewise, the network switches (the number is secret) have duplicates on hot-standby, the operator says. And if the worst came to the worst and the whole network went down, handsets would still function as mobile radios, capable of talking to each other for as long as their batteries held out.
However, Airwave's limited ability to handle data - while some police forces use it to transmit images, it is painfully slow - raises questions about its suitability as the sole operational carrier in a national emergency.
Last month, the Home Affairs Select Committee's report Policing in the 21st century concluded: "The Airwave radio network can struggle to cope where a very large number of users are concentrated in the same area. We are concerned about the potential for the network to fail during the 2012 Olympic Games, given the number of officers who will be deployed. The Home Office should address this as a matter of urgency, including consideration of expanding the radio band assigned to Airwave." The report quoted evidence by the Academy of Engineering that: "The amount of voice traffic is now reaching the limits of the current system's spectrum resources in some areas (particularly in London). This suggests that the Airwave system will be inadequate for the future needs of the police forces, particularly in densely populated areas where information needs are likely to exceed the Tetra network's capacity."
Airwave executives agree with the need for more bandwidth, but vigorously deny that the network would fall over from excess demand. "We've never got anywhere near getting to such levels," a senior executive said this week. If the network did become overloaded, it would automatically ration calls in a pre-programmed priority rather than shutting down, he said.
Contingency plans to fill the gap left by the blocking of non-official websites appear to be less well prepared. Under the scheme of website rationalisation, two central "supersites" have a role to play.
The main one is the central government site direct.gov.uk, which the Cabinet Office says will be "the place people turn to in a national emergency". However, Whitehall sources say that the site's operators, based at the Central Office of Information but reporting to the Department for Work and Pensions (which hosts the site), are still working on how the information feed from the government's emergency response teams will work in practice.
Meanwhile, in the event of an epidemic or chemical, biological or nuclear attack, the new NHS portal, nhs.uk, has plans to clear its home page to provide graphic-only information about what to do.
Finally, when all else shuts down, the government can fall back on the tried and tested radio - meaning conventional analogue broadcast. In the event of a major national catastrophe, we can assume that Radio 4 will be the last to go off air. According to Whitehall historian Peter Hennessey, captains of Trident missile submarines are instructed that if they lose all communication with the UK, and Radio 4's Today programme is not broadcast for three days, they may assume the home country has been wiped out and open their instructions for Armageddon.
In which case, it probably won't matter whether Twitter is working - or not.Topics
- UK security and counter-terrorism
- Digital media
- Counter-terrorism policy
- Politics and technology
- Emergency planning
- Share on Facebook
- Share on Twitter
- Share via Email
- Share on LinkedIn
- Share on Pinterest
- Share on Google+
- Share on WhatsApp
- Share on Messenger