Cell Phone Bombs

How law enforcement can (and can't) prevent them.

Why law enforcement lacks jamming equipment

According to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC)'s Web site, "The operation of transmitters designed to jam or block wireless communications is a violation of the Communications Act of 1934, as amended ('Act').

  • [47 USC Sections 301, 302a, 333] The Act prohibits any person from willfully or maliciously interfering with the radio communications of any station licensed or authorized under the Act or operated by the U.S. government.
  • [47 USC Section 333] The manufacture, importation, sale or offer for sale, including advertising, of devices designed to block or jam wireless transmissions is prohibited.
  • [47 USC Section 302a(b)] Parties in violation of these provisions may be subject to the penalties set out in 47 USC Sections 501-510. Fines for a first offense can range as high as $11,000 for each violation or imprisonment for up to one year, and the device used also may be seized and forfeited to the U.S. government."

Cell Antenna Corp. has challenged the Federal Communications Act in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida. Melamed argues that the Act conflicts with the 14th Amendment's due process and equal protection clauses, in that the Homeland Security Act (HSA) of 2002 implicitly repealed the Federal Communications Act. Language in the complaint reads, "Whereas the FCC prohibits the sale of RF and cellular jammers to state or local police departments, the HSA consistently and repeatedly directs the Department of Homeland Security to take whatever measures are necessary to empower local law enforcement agencies and first responders in the fight against global terrorism." In particular, Section 701 of the HSA reads that the government must "coordinat[e] with state and local government personnel, agencies, and authorities, and with the private sector, to ensure adequate planning, equipment, training and exercise activities ..."

The FCC has filed a motion of dismissal for the case — for technicalities, Melamed notes, not merit — and Cell Antenna Corp. remains the only entity involved. Cell Antenna has countered in court, saying that this issue is of utmost importance and cannot simply be set aside. Other organizations, including the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP), have chosen not to file supportive briefs. Although the IACP has not taken an official position on the issue, according to spokesperson Wendy Balazik, other organizations have — on both sides.

Kevin Barry, a U.S. spokes-person for the International Association of Bomb Technicians and Investigators, says his organization supports any measure — including local police use of jamming equipment — that would make bomb squad operators safer on the job. "The amount of time the equipment would be in use is minimal," he notes. Agreeing with Melamed that federal response may, depending on many factors, lag significantly behind local response, Barry says local police need a way to further secure the perimeter around a site — and to help control public panic, which would likely result as teams waited for a federal responder with the jamming equipment.

On the flip side, Joe Farren, spokesperson for the Cellular Telecommunications & Internet (The Wireless) Association (CTIA), says his organization supports the ban on local law enforcement access to jamming equipment. "Movie theaters wanted the technology as a way of cutting down on public nuisances, but it would interfere with legitimate emergency communications — someone trying to reach a surgeon, parent or first responder," he says.

Acknowledging that, whether via jamming equipment or an agreement with carriers, law enforcement may need part of a network shut down — and that precedent exists to do this — Farren says the CTIA is at work with the DHS to develop just such a protocol. However, he argues, DHS should have sole authority as to its implementation. "Federal agents are in the business of assessing terrorist risks and threats, so they should be in charge of the protocol for interfering with cellular communications," he explains. "There are significant risks to shutting down a network, including the fact that emergency personnel trying to control a threat will lose part of their ability to communicate."

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