Lentis/Cell Phone Jamming in the United States
Lentis/Cell Phone Jamming in the United States
2018-06-20 - View 5 all comments
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Overview

Electronic devices that cause purposeful interference to cellular communications have become accessible to the general public as the cost of cell phone jammer technology has decreased. This technology was previously only available to government entities, who use these devices for varying purposes. Many dictatorships employ jammers to suppress dissent [1], other governments use them to prevent remote detonation of bombs[2], and some developed nations like Hong Kong and Canada have considered legalizing the devices to discourage rude phone behavior in public [3]. In the United States, recent headlines have stirred debate over the ethics and legality of cell phone jamming. [4] This chapter of Lentis will analyze the on-going controversy of cell phone jamming in the United States, with an emphasis on the sociological and psychological reasoning behind the use of cell phone jammers by individuals.

Legality

According to the Federal Communications Act of 1934, it is illegal to operate, import, or market any device that blocks, jams, or interferes with authorized means of radio communication, which now includes cellular phone communication. It is illegal for any US citizen to use or sell a cell phone jammer.[5] The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is responsible for the enforcement of communications law, and can levy fines of up to $112,000 and push for jail sentences of up to one year for cell phone jamming violations.[6] [7]

Under the United States' Emergency Wireless Protocols[8], only certain federal agencies have the authority to disrupt cellular signals. Government law enforcement and intelligence agencies such as the CIA, FBI, NSA and the Secret Service use cell phone jammers to prevent terrorists from remotely denotating explosives. During the 2009 Presidential Inauguration, the Secret Service employed jamming technology to prevent such acts of terrorism[9] Cell phone jammers are also used extensively by the United States Armed Forces in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.[10]

Accessibility

File:Wave Bubble.jpg
An MIT Electrical Engineering student's do-it-yourself cell phone jammer

Portable, low-profile handheld cell phone jammers can be purchased online from a number of distributors [11] [12] [13], who offer dozens of models ranging in size, power, and complexity. They often sell other illegal communication interference devices, such as GPS jammers [14] and police radar jammers [15]. Some cell phone jammer distributors claim no problems with US Customs to assuage customers' fear of legal consequences [16].

Do-it-yourself (DIY) instructions are readily available online, often with step-by-step instructions, pictures, and forums [17]. Performance of these DIY jammers generally correlates with difficulty of construction.

Social Perspectives

Federal Government Regulators

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is opposed to the use of cell phone jammers in any capacity other than authorized federal use. The FCC argues that cell phone jammers “pose an unacceptable risk to public safety by potentially preventing the transmission of emergency communication."[18] Cell phone jammers work by disrupting signals between cell phones and cell phone towers and do not discriminate emergency calls from non-emergency calls. 70% of 9-1-1 calls are made using cell phones[19], so any disruption to cell phone service has serious safety implications.

Civil Liberties Organizations

Numerous organizations who support individual rights and civil liberties have spoken out against the use of cell phone jammers, whether by public or private entities or individuals. Public Knowledge, the Center for Democracy & Technology, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the Benton Foundation, Free Press, the Minority Media and Telecommunications Council, the National Hispanic Media Coalition, and the Open Technology Institute at the New America Foundation condemned wireless service interruptions by government entities[20] after the San Francisco Bay Area Rapid Transit decided to shut down cellular service in an attempt to foil a planned protest.[21]

Cell Phone Industry

The Cellular Telephone Industry Association (CTIA) advocates against the use of cell phone jammers.[22] CTIA represents wireless service providers and manufacturers of wireless products, and believe cell phone jammers make cell phones and wireless service less desirable and restrict access to emergency services. CTIA believes that promoting cell phone etiquette is better solution to the cell phone rudeness. CTIA has started public education campaigns that teach cell phone users to be more considerate in public places. [23]

Private Citizens

There have numerous documented cases of private citizens using cell phone jammers in public places.[24] The desire to use cell phone jammers results from well documented psychological and sociological factors. The majority of people do not like hearing other people’s cell phone conversations.[25]. Scientific studies have shown that listening to only one half of a conversation, such as overhearing someone on their cell phone, is statistically more distracting than overhearing two people talk in person.[26] These half conversations, known as "halfalogues," are more distracting because the eavesdropper’s brain cannot predict the flow of the conversation. Cell phone jammers[27] provide a simple solution to this annoyance without confrontation. Noted sociologist Erving Goffman, who studied everyday human interactions, characterizes people as actors who play different roles and project different emotions depending on the situation and the audience. Confronting strangers in a public place is outside American social norms and most people will try to avoid it.

The use of cell phone jammers by private citizens is a form of vigilantism, a conservative human impulse that arises when there is a threat to the status quo.[28] The proliferation of cell phones has threatened traditional etiquette in public places. To restore tranquility, some individuals have resorted to using cell phones jammers. One man was recently caught disrupting cell phone service on a Philadelphia bus.[29] When confronted by the media, he claimed that he was “taking the law into [his] own hands, and quite frankly [he's] proud of it."

Lessons To Be Learned

Technology Can Affect Social Interactions

Novel devices can introduce unanticipated social interactions and disrupt existing social norms. In the past, people made phone calls in private telephone booths; but the proliferation of cell phones has made phone booths obsolete. Phone calls are now often made within the public space of other citizens. New social norms are developed around new technologies, which can lead to social friction as groups adapt to their new environment and technologies. The case of cell phone jammers demonstrates how counter-technologies are created as social groups attempt to maintain existing social norms. Sociology can help explain and predict the evolution of these new social norms.

Anonymity Can Give Power To Individuals

Cell phone jamming technology can give an individual power over others. Crucial to that power is anonymity. Without it, social pressures would stop the individual from acting against his own self-interest, or self-image, as renowned sociologist Evert Goffman put it. Psychology can help explain and predict how individuals will utilize new technologies.

Financial Incentives Can Outweigh Legal Risks

Despite legal boundaries, companies will pursue a market if the financial incentives outweigh the legal risks. For example, PhoneJammer.com was fined $25,000 for selling its illegal products to American consumers [30], yet the company continues to do so despite the financial setbacks. Microeconomic theory can used to explain that if potential rewards outweigh potential risks, then companies will enter a market.

Conclusion Engineers are often inclined to develop purely technological solutions to societal problems, but that can be myopic. A purely technological solution to the problem of rude cell phone conversations or unwanted cell phone jamming would likely not be successful and may lead to the next counter-technology, if social factors are not considered. The best solutions are most often ones that consider the social sciences not only as relevant, but often critical to solving society's problems.

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