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Local Police Want Right to Jam Wireless Signals

Local Police Want Right to Jam Wireless Signals

  • 2014-11-05
 As President Obama's motorcade rolled down Pennsylvania Avenue on Inauguration Day, federal authorities deployed a closely held law enforcement tool: equipment that can jam cellphones and other wireless devices to foil remote-controlled bombs, sources said.

It 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.

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.

Jamming has been approved in the past for major events, ranging from State of the Union addresses to visits by certain foreign dignitaries, according to a federal official who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk about the subject.

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.

Much of the controversy has been fueled by the growing demands from state and local governments.

In the District, corrections officials won permission from the FCC for a brief test of jamming technology at the D.C. jail last month, after citing the "alarming rate" of contraband phones being seized at prisons around the country.

"Cell phones are used by inmates to engage in highly pernicious behavior such as the intimidation of witnesses, coordination of escapes, and the conducting of criminal enterprises," D.C. corrections chief Devon Brown wrote to the federal agency.(adapted from:washiontonpost)

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