I’ve been following the adventures of CellAntenna, the company that wants to sell cellphone jamming devices in the U.S., for awhile now. As lots of folks would love to jam cell phones — from hotels that hate losing the revenue from charging for use of their phones to theater venues that want customers to enjoy the show to schools trying to tamp down on texting in class — you would think there would be lots of these jammers on the market. The problem, of course, is that Section 333 of the Communications Act (47 U.S.C. 333) makes cell phone jamming illegal. Just in case anyone missed this rather straightforward statutory prohibition, the FCC officially clarified that Section 333 means “no cell phone jammers” in 2005.
Enter CellAnntenna, determined to sell cell phone jammers legally. If you are going to develop a legal on something illegal, you either need something real clever (like magic cellphone blocking nanopaint), or a strategy for changing the law coupled with the sort of stubbornness that does not mind slamming into a brick wall 99 times because you might dent it on the hundreth time. CellAntenna has apparently followed this later strategy — and may be making some headway.
CellAntenna initially tried to get courts to declare Section 333 unconstitutional. So far as I can tell, that’s going nowhere. Next, and far more successfully, CellAntenna has recruited prisons to push the idea that only cellphone jammers can resolve the problem that prison security sucks rocks. This has prompted a bill to create a “prison waiver” exception to Section 333 (House version here) and a raft of credulous stories like this one that prefer to ask “isn’t it awful that we can’t jam cell phones” rather than ask “what the $#@! do you mean we can’t secure our ‘maximum security’ prisons?”
I explore the issues, and why I think creating an exception to Sec. 333 would be a big mistake, below . . . .
If the experience with wireless microphones proliferating all over the place teaches us anything, it’s that once a technology gets sold at Radio Shack (or equivalent) it will get used by everyone. Which, I uncharitably suspect, is part of CellAntenna’s business plan. Prisons, after all, are a fairly small market. But if they can get cell phone jammers approved for a legal use, odds are good they will either keep pushing to expand the eligible pool or quietly allow a “gray market” to proliferate.
Even assuming good faith on the part of CellAntenna to limit availability of the devices, this interview in Ars Technica of CTIA’s Chris Guttman-McCabe highlights the problem of trying to limit this to prisons. I’m suspicious of permitting jamming as a general rule. When we add to this the likelihood of spillover effects, I get really nervous about creating an exception to the no jamming rule — even for prison security.
(I will add that the high price of landline phone calls in prisons (as noted in the interview) is an injustice that impacts the families of prisoners and cuts against everything we know about the importance of maintaining family relationships to reduce recidivism. But that is a topic for another post.)
Guttman-McCabe also makes another strong point by observing that cell phone smuggling involves inside help. Even worse than no security measures are bad/ineffective security measures. Although he doesn’t press this hard enough, I think the point is critical. If gangs in prisons can bribe/intimidate guards to help them smuggle cell phones and other contraband, it can’t be that hard to turn jammers off or bring prisoners to areas left clear of the jammer coverage (for example, areas left clear for use by guards).
Finally, from a policy perspective, setting the precedent that we should have waivers of Section 333 to allow blocking for “good reasons” is a very bad idea because I can always think of a reason why I deserve a waiver. Lots of people have security concerns about cell phone hacking. Should they be allowed to have jammers? Should schools have jammers to prevent cheating and maintain order in class rooms? What about theaters?
While a fair number of folk will probably think “good idea, and add my favorite restaurant to the list,” we should consider the negative impacts of such a scheme. First, for better or worse, lots of people are absolutely dependent on being in contact 24/7. If cell phone jammers proliferate, we are going to see an accumulation of stories about heart surgeons or parents leaving their children with sitters not getting critical messages in time because they did not know they were in a jamming zone. There is also the impact on public safety and data services. A device blocking cell phone reception in the 700 MHz, 800 MHz and 900 MHz bands available to AT&T and VZ is likely to have impact on all the other services in this extremely crowded band. After all, jamming devices are not smart devices designed to protect adjacent services — they are screaming loud emitters designed to block communication.
Bottom line: we have a real problem with prisoners getting access to cell phones illegally. Legalizing cell phone jammers, even for limited purposes, has very real costs for our communication system. We have had an absolute ban on deliberately interfering with someone else’s wireless transmission for more than 75 years that has shaped our communications infrastructure. To overturn that ban — however limited the exemption and however noble the cause — represents a fundamental shift in policy that takes us in a direction we really don’t want to go. That might be worth it if it solved the actual problem — but it doesn’t. Instead, we will open up the door to a new world in which we have legally available and therefore — if the history of wireless microphones and other such services teaches us anything — widely available. Worse, this will not only interfere with cell phone communication on which we have grown so dependent, but is also likely to interfere with traffic in the adjacent bands.
Finally, I find it particularly informative that the origin of this extraordinarily bad idea, and the energy giving it its current momentum, comes from a private company cynically manipulating the prison situation and the press for the benefit of its bottom line. I would find that obnoxious (but hardly unusual) if it didn’t impose costs on the rest of us. But I really have a problem with screwing up 75 years of spectrum policy solely to benefit CellAntenna’s bottom line.
Stay tuned . . . .