IT in a Jam

In France last week, it became legal for movie theaters to use electronic jammers to block cell phone use during shows. In Mexico, some churches recently started doing the same thing during religious services, even though jammers are illegal there. Police in the U.S. use them too, especially during hostage standoffs. That's a violation of federal law, but the FCC has never taken anyone to court over it. Prisons, the Secret Service, the military -- the list of jammer users keeps getting longer.

Hey, if they're using jammers to solve their problems, why can't we use them to deal with the security issues created by cell phones, Wi-Fi and other wireless technologies?

It sure would make things easier for us. Instead of constantly monitoring networks to look for Wi-Fi hubs that users have smuggled in, we could just shut them down with a jammer. We could block cell phones in conference rooms and jam camera-equipped phones in sensitive areas like research labs (and restrooms). Everything from surveillance bugs to Bluetooth devices could be shut down at once by turning whole office buildings into dead zones.

Yes, we'd be rolling things back to the prewireless days. But that means we'd dump all the problems wireless has brought us, from network security holes to the time employees waste on nonbusiness cell calls. And since most of those wireless gizmos are personal, not issued by the company, we wouldn't be losing official IT infrastructure -- just shedding annoying complications that users have dragged in.

It's technology applied to eliminate problems introduced by technology. So why shouldn't we use jammers?

Well, they are illegal. Maybe the FCC isn't actively looking for violators, but if you blast away with a jammer in the same location long enough, you'll probably get caught.

Then there are the side effects. Never mind users whining about emergency calls they might not get; they got messages about emergencies before they had cell phones, and they can do that now, too.

But delivery and repair people depend heavily on wireless technologies these days. Your building security guards use radios; so do police and firefighters. Broad-spectrum jamming would cut them all off. Jamming would likely affect your neighbors, too, because there's no cheap way to limit the effects of a jamming signal -- it won't stay inside your office walls.

Of course, you could limit your jamming to just Wi-Fi's 2.4-GHz band and spend extra for smart jammers that fool cell phones into thinking they're local towers that have run out of bandwidth. Or you could line your office and conference room walls with radioproof material that lets you use Wi-Fi and Bluetooth locally while blocking would-be wireless hijackers and without annoying the people next door -- and that approach is legal, too.

Pile on enough antiwireless technology, and you might even be able to block just the things you want blocked. Wouldn't that be great?

No, it wouldn't.

Maybe movie theaters and churches can roll back wireless. Maybe cops and the Secret Service have to create wireless-free zones. We can't -- any more than we could roll back the Internet or LANs or PCs when users first brought them in.

Sure, wireless will give us security headaches for a long time. But users have forced us to deal with cell phones, Wi-Fi and the rest. They've forced wireless on us because it's useful to them, even if it's an ongoing pain for us.

We can -- and should -- use vigilance, education and occasional arm-twisting to plug security holes and keep users from straying too far from what we can handle.

But there's no use in wishing for ways to jam or block or limit wireless technology. Not now, not anymore. Users are right -- for IT, in many ways, the future is wireless.

And we can't jam the future.

Frank Hayes, Computerworld's senior news columnist, has covered IT for more than 20 years. Contact him at

See more Frankly Speaking columns.

Copyright © 2004 IDG Communications, Inc.

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