Miffed by cell phones, many try jamming

Gadget vs. gizmo: The illegal is used to silence the annoying

February 15, 2004|By Cox News Service

NEW YORK - A cafe customer fed up with cell phone chatter sits in a bubble of blissful silence as nearby patrons puzzle over dead handsets.

A man tries to take a secret snapshot with his camera phone but gets only a blank screen.

A priest imbues his church with a new energy - the electromagnetic kind - to keep his sermons serene and free from beeps, chirps and ring tones.

These are glimpses in a war of gadgets quietly playing out around the world.

As millions embrace the freedoms of mobile communications, some people and companies are pushing back against the tide. They are fighting technology with technology, using detectors, jammers and other gizmos to defend privacy, security and sometimes sanity.

Jamming cell phones is illegal in the United States, but with pocket-size jammers sold online by foreign companies and even on eBay, and the military and governments using such devices, the wireless fight has been engaged.

"It's like the battle between the radar detector and radar guns. It keeps on escalating," said Jeff Kagan, an independent telecommunications analyst based in Atlanta. He said the need for such devices is prompted by the "double-edged sword of technology."

"The inventor of the cell phone never thought about the fact that people would be using them constantly and impinging on other people's privacy," he said.

"The inventor of the camera phone never thought about the fact that they would be used in locker rooms and other inappropriate places."

How it works

Jamming a cell phone, essentially a two-way radio, is relatively straightforward.

Jammers typically disrupt the communication between handsets and cellular towers by flooding an area with interference or selectively blocking signals by broadcasting on the same frequencies that phones use.

Some jammers have to be as smart as cell phones, which try to increase power or hop to other radio channels to avoid interference.

Depending on their power, jammers can disrupt communications in an area spanning a few yards or across several miles.

Commercial jammers have been sold overseas for years, and some Internet postings offer instructions on building homemade models.

The Federal Communications Commission prohibits people in the United States from building, selling, operating or importing radio-jamming devices. People who violate this provision of a 70-year-old communications law face up to a year in prison and fines of $11,000 for each violation.

FCC officials say they have received very few complaints about jammed cell phones and have never taken action against anyone for that violation.

Those in the jammer industry say people use low-powered devices with little fear of reprisals, because it's difficult, if not impossible, for a caller to distinguish between a jammed signal and an ordinary cell phone dead zone.

Jamming deterred

Despite that, the U.S. law deters jammer use and limits its spread among consumers, said Kagan, the analyst.

The wireless industry says jamming devices endanger the public.

"One-hundred and fifty million Americans rely on wireless phones. If those phones are jammed, doctors might miss calls from hospitals or parents could miss emergency calls from baby sitters," said Travis Larson, spokesman for the Cellular Telecommunications and Internet Association.

Larson said that to cut down on the annoyances of cell phone use, customers should use their "mute button, volume control, vibrate mode, voice mail and an on-off button" when appropriate.

He said jamming a specific area where silence is expected, such as a movie theater, is still a risk, even with warning signs.

"Jammers may leak into other adjacent frequency bands, blocking public safety radio signals used by police officers and firefighters," he said.

But safety concerns, courtesy suggestions and the law haven't stopped people from buying jammers.

The British company Global Gadget UK Ltd. sells to people in other countries an array of jamming and detection products, including a portable jammer disguised as a cell phone that can disrupt cellular communication up to 45 feet away.

"You will be able to silence those anti-social types who insist on using their mobile phones in the most indiscreet way," an Internet ad for the product says. "The beauty is that they will not know it is you that has switched them off! All they will see is that their signal has dropped."

Michael Menage, the company's director, said he sells hundreds of pocket jammers to people in the United States, his biggest market. Each costs about $320.

"They're illegal to use over there. People are still quite keen to buy them," Menage said. He said he has sold to the U.S. military but that most customers are individuals or small businesses tired of cellular distractions.

He said some businessmen use jammers to keep meetings quiet or to disable possible eavesdropping devices, particularly cell phones rigged to be bugs.

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