Amanda Ripley

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Why Jamming Cell Signals is a Terrible Idea

2nd Feb 2009 posted in Resilience

The Washington Post writes that the feds jammed wireless signals in DC on inauguration day—and state and local officials are trying to get the right to do the same thing. This is frightening news.

The intent is noble enough: stop terrorists from detonating bombs and coordinating with each other—by temporarily jamming all cell phones and other wireless devices near a potential security threat.

But the cost is much, much higher than the Post story—or any of the supporters of the idea acknowledge. This is a classic case of emergency plans being written for emergency officials.

In fact, in major disasters, regular people do the majority of the lifesaving. They text and tell each other which houses are on fire, how many planes have hit the Towers, where to go to escape the rising water. People have learned over the years to use cell phones to save lives—far more efficiently than government agencies.

Yes, it’s true that terrorists exploit the same tools the rest of us rely upon, and it has always been so. But the best solution is never a blunt one. It’s worth remembering that this technology was designed for the U.S. military to use in Iraq, where IEDs were being planted at the rate of 90 per day in 2007. (Interestingly, terrorists adapted rather quickly to the jamming technology by hardwiring their detonators.)

But as with other profitable military technology, once it exists, it’s hard to prevent it from spreading into the homeland. People stand to make money and see opportunity here. But this is not a war zone, not yet.

Terrorists also use TV news. Should we shut that down, too? Terrorists use GPS systems. Why are they so easy to buy? What about maps? Google? Box cutters? The solution has to be smarter than this. When Timothy McVeigh used 5,000 lbs of fertilizer to blow up the Murrah Building, did we ban fertilizer? No, we asked merchants to track sales of ammonium nitrate and report unusual interest in the product. Is it a perfect solution? No. It’s a compromise, just like every risk calculus we make. If we want to save lives by banning cell phones, we should do it behind the wheel, where talking on a cell phone quadruples your chance of getting in an accident.