Cell Phone Jamming For Prisons: Because There’s Nothing Like A “Solution” That Creates Problems andJuly 14, 2009
As I've blogged over at Tales of the Sausage Factory, my even snarkier and wonkier blog, a company called CellAntenna continues to try to leverage the problem of cell phone smuggling into prisons t expand its product line. Sadly, they keep gaining momentum, as lots of people (particularly prison wardens) would like to believe that a new tech gadget can solve their problems. Not only have a bunch of prison wardens filed a Petition for Rulemaking at the FCC, but they are backing a bill that would require the FCC to authorize cell phone jamming in prison.
You can find general background on CellAntenna, their quest to monetize security breaches in prisons, and why this is a bad idea in my Wetmachine post. Also, in preparation for tomorrow's Senate Hearing on the issue, we have sent this letter (press release here) to Chairman Rockefeller and Ranking Member Hutchison. We've also put up another Five Minutes With Harold Feld giving the short version of why this is a really bad idea. But to run through a few headlines:
1) It won't work. As this Wired article notes, you can beat the jamming with a few pieces of aluminum foil. That doesn't even consider the human element that prison personnel compromised enough to smuggle in cell phones can also diddle the jamming system.
2) On the other hand, as noted by frequency coordination managers, public safety orgs, and commercial licensees like CTIA, this is very likely to screw up legal wireless communication. I will note that while CellAntenna is real big on applying for permission to do flashy demos under controlled circumstances, they don't seem terribly eager to submit any actual engineering data to back up their claims that they can jam contraband cell phones in prison areas without interfering with (a) authorized phones used by guards, (b) neighboring public safety frequencies, or (c) anyone outside the prison.
3) OTOH, while this probably won't do squat to solve the problem of contraband cell phone use, it almost certainly will make it a heck of a lot easier to get cell phone jammers in the U.S. Which has the potential to create real problems for commercial and public safety communications generally.
4) If we really want to address the problem, we need to do better than fake security from expensive new gadgets that won't work. Cell phone network operators can work with prisons to block all but explicitly authorized phones (called “white listing”) or can monitor cell traffic that originates in prisons that comes from unauthorized sources. We can also reduce the outrageous cost of collect calls from prisoners to their families. As Beiser's Wired article notes, most prisoners use contraband cell phones to stay in touch with their families because they cannot afford the high rates of prison calls. This makes renting cell phones to prisoners extremely lucrative. Reduce the profit from renting contraband cell phones and you reduce (although do not eliminate) the incentive to bring in cell phones.
Hopefully, folks will wise up to CellAntenna's scam. It's not just that bad, easily circumventable security is worse than no security. It's not just that money spent on jammers that leak like sieves could go to measures that would improve security in prisons and crackdown on contraband. It's that authorizing this stuff is actually dangerous for everyone who uses wireless — which these days means everybody.
About Harold Feld
Harold Feld is Public Knowledge’s Senior Vice President and author of “The Case for the Digital Platform Act,” (Public Knowledge & Roosevelt Institute 2019) a guide on what government can do to preserve competition and empower individual users in the huge swath of our economy now referred to as “Big Tech.” Former FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler described this book as, “[...] a tour de force of the issues raised by the digital economy and internet capitalism.” For more than 20 years, Feld has practiced law at the intersection of technology, broadband, and media policy in both the private sector and in the public interest community. Feld has an undergraduate degree from Princeton University, a law degree from Boston University, and clerked for the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals. Feld also writes “Tales of the Sausage Factory,” a progressive blog on media and telecom policy. In 2007, Illinois Senator Dick Durbin praised him and his blog for “[doing] a lot of great work helping people understand how FCC decisions affect people and communities on the ground.”