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    Washington Post: Local Police Want Right to Jam Wireless Signals

    The Washington Post has an interesting story on local police pushing for the power to jam wireless signals.

    [E]quipment that can jam cellphones and other wireless devices to foil remote-controlled bombs […] is an increasingly common technology, with federal agencies expanding its use as state and local agencies are pushing for permission to do the same. Police and others say it could stop terrorists from coordinating during an attack, prevent suspects from erasing evidence on wireless devices, simplify arrests and keep inmates from using contraband phones.

    But jamming remains strictly illegal for state and local agencies. Federal officials barely acknowledge that they use it inside the United States, and the few federal agencies that can jam signals usually must seek a legal waiver first.

    The quest to expand the technology has invigorated a debate about how widely jamming should be allowed and whether its value as a common crime-fighting strategy outweighs its downsides, including restricting the constant access to the airwaves that Americans have come to expect.

    “Jamming is a blunt instrument,” said Joe Farren, vice president of government affairs for the Cellular Telecommunications Industry Association. He and others pointed out that when authorities disable wireless service, whether during a terrorist attack or inside a prison, that action can also stop the calls that could help in an emergency. During November’s raids in Mumbai, for example, citizens relied on cellphones to direct police to the assailants.

    Several federal agencies can deploy the jamming technology.

    Some federal agencies, including the FBI and the Secret Service, have standing authority to use jamming equipment or can request waivers from the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, a Commerce Department agency, when there is an imminent threat, a federal official said. […]

    After transit bombings in Europe, the Department of Homeland Security reached an agreement in 2006 under the National Communications System with cellphone companies to voluntarily shut down service under certain circumstances, which could disable signals for areas ranging from a tunnel to an entire metropolitan region, a DHS official said.

    Some legislators are supporting an expansion of the power to jam wireless signals. Senate Homeland Security Chairman Joe Lieberman plans to introduce legislation giving law enforcement the power to jam electronic signals in case of terrorist attack. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchinson has introduced S. 251, “a bill to amend the Communications Act of 1934 to permit targeted interference with mobile radio services within prison facilities.” The bill would allow select state or federal officials to petition the Federal Communications Commission for a waiver “to permit the installation of devices for the sole purpose of preventing, jamming, or interfering with wireless communications within the geographic boundaries of a specified prison, penitentiary, or correctional facility under his or her jurisdiction.” Such a waiver “shall be for a term not to exceed 10 years, but shall be renewable by petition.”

    Whenever a new technology is under consideration, I ask, “Is this technology useful and cost-effective, or is it simply something new for officials to point to as proof they are ‘doing something’?” Let’s take the request to jam wireless signals at prisons because inmates are able to smuggle in phones and use them to commit crimes. Why is it better to spend money on equipment to jam such signals (which would also jam wireless signals from guards, medical personnel, and other non-prisoners in the jails) rather than spending money on improving the security procedures so that neither mobile phones nor other dangerous contraband could be brought in?

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