Elgan: Legalize cell phone jammers?

Should prisons and police be allowed to jam cell phones? Should movie theaters? Should you?

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Jailhouse block

A bill now in Congress called the Safe Prisons Communications Act of 2009 would enable governors or the director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons to petition the Federal Communications Commission for permission to use jammers in jails.

Prison officials want this passed because prisoners routinely smuggle cell phones into prisons. Last year, prison officials in California alone confiscated 2,800 cell phones.

Incarcerated convicts use cell phones to conduct criminal business and intimidate victims and witnesses.

Prisoners use cell phones to bypass the monitored communication systems that prisons use between people on the inside and the outside. They also keep prisoners who have been separated to keep in touch -- gang members and terrorists, for example.

One challenge faced by President Obama in his bid to close the Guantanamo Bay detention facility is that any terrorists transferred to U.S. prisons would have immediate access to cell phones, which they could use to plan additional attacks.

Last year, a convicted murderer on death row used a smuggled cell phone to threaten a state legislator and try to influence a reporter.

Those who oppose the bill argue that jamming calls inside prisons could affect calls outside the prison walls.

You'll get your phone call at the station

State and local police want the same authority as federal officials to jam signals during arrests and other dangerous situations. Cell phones can give criminals, gang members and terrorists a tactical advantage during raids. This is why federal officials find jamming so useful. So why isn't this capability allowed for state and local police?

'Shhhhh' no more!

Some have called for the right to jam calls in movie theaters, hospitals and elsewhere. But others say that doing so would block calls in an emergency.

But if cell phone access is so vital to health and safety, why are we asked to silence or turn off cell phones in the theater? Only people who flout the theater's requests get to receive incoming emergency calls?

And if people need cell phone access at all times in case of emergency, shouldn't airlines be "required" to enable cell phone access during flights? Why is cell phone access required during a two-hour movie, but not required during a five-hour flight?

Also, why is the president allowed to defend himself against cell phone-enabled attacks, but others aren't? The horrible terrorist attacks in Mumbai, India, for example, were orchestrated and coordinated with cell phones. If the hotels were allowed to have jammers, they may have been able to save lives. Witnesses used cell phones to call police and tell them where attacks were taking place, but nearly all of those calls were placed outside the hotels, not inside.

It's worth noting that in recent years, the Department of Homeland Security has been given the authority not only to jam, but to shut down cell phone towers of entire cities during terrorist attacks. That means that, as a society, we have already determined that during terrorist attacks, cell phones are more of a threat than a source of protection. As a Financial Times columnist says, "In the arsenal of guerrillas and insurgents, the modest mobile phone plays as important a role as the AK-47 or plastic explosives."

Why should only federal authorities give themselves the right to defend against cell phone-enabled attacks, while denying it to the rest of us? Shouldn't jammers be installed in hotels, restaurants and other places all over, say, New York, but not used unless there's an attack or a hostage situation?

Making the call

The question isn't really whether cell phone jamming should be allowed, because jamming is already taking place. Federal authorities have already granted themselves a legal monopoly to jam cell phones. And criminals have granted themselves an illegal ability to do so as well.

The question is: Why shouldn't anybody else be allowed? Show me where it says in the Constitution that the federal government has the right to deny, say, California the right to protect its citizens from cell phone-abusing criminals -- both inside and outside of prisons. Where is the constitutional authority to tell Texas or Oregon that it can't pass a state law that allows cell phone jammers in movie theaters? Why can't New Hampshire allow ordinary citizens to carry handheld cell phone jammers if it wants to?

Most people treat cell phone jamming as a simple, black-and-white issue. But I think it's a complex issue that needs a thorough re-examination.

If you support bans on cell phone jamming, shouldn't the feds be banned as well?

If you think it's OK for the feds to jam calls for public safety, then shouldn't the states be allowed to jam for the same reason?

And why on Earth shouldn't individual states, counties or communities be allowed to pass their own laws based on their own local values concerning the banning of cell phone jammers?

What's your opinion?

Mike Elgan writes about technology and global tech culture. He blogs about the technology needs, desires and successes of mobile warriors in his Computerworld blog, The World Is My Office. Contact Mike at mike.elgan@elgan.com, follow him on Twitter or his blog, The Raw Feed.

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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