Some Cellular Jamming Should Be Legal

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Not long ago, I attended a public-safety workshop about weapons of mass destruction, something I do in one of my volunteer do-gooder lives. We were watching a slide and video presentation given by a Special Agent of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. The speaker was a highly-trained and apparently fearless bomb disposal agent, talking about the danger posed by easy-to-build car bombs.

He told us the story of a Russian bomb squad member who became a national celebrity for defusing a terrorist bomb left in a major city. The bomb tech was shown on the evening news across Russia.

The next day, he was called to another incident. Again, with TV cameras watching, the hero bomb tech successfully defused this new bomb. Except that he hadn't defused it. Inside supposedly defused bomb was another detonator.

As soon as the Russian removed his safety garment the bomb exploded, killing him. It was a trap, created to kill the bomb technician and remove one hero from the population--so that, too, could be shown on TV.

The FBI agent said the Russians figured someone triggered the bomb from a nearby crowd or building, using a cell phone.

I came away thinking that the FBI agent who showed our group this video is brave in a way I can barely imagine. What kind of person isn't scared silly by watching a video of someone doing the same job they do--bomb disposal--being personally targeted and blown up by terrorists?

Instead, this FBI agent uses the video to show emergency workers how to improve their own safety by being prepared for such an event. Whatever salary we taxpayers are giving this federal employee, it just isn't enough. You want his job? I'm not that brave or that crazy, but I thank God someone is.

Forgive me for telling this long story. I share it in the hope it will give you a better appreciation of the men and women who risk their own lives to protect us. This is why I am in favor of pulling out all the stops to protect our protectors.

I bring this up because my colleague Mike Elgan has written an interesting piece examining the case for allowing the jamming of cellular telephones by law enforcement and prisons here in the United States.

Right now, only federal law enforcement can legally jam cell phones, something they recently did to protect President Obama from improvised explosive devices as he walked down Pennsylvania Ave. following his swearing in.

Elgan talks about a proposal, now before Congress, that could lead to the legal jamming of cellular handsets in state and federal prisons, where smuggled devices allow the bad guys to run their businesses from behind bars.

We also need a law that would allow state and local agencies to use jammers in specific circumstances, something the bill now under consideration does not do.

I won't go into the detail that Elgan does, but I believe law enforcement at all levels needs access to cellular jamming technology when its use is reasonably necessary to protect people's lives.

This is not a one cop=one jammer proposal. That would create mayhem as individual officers used the devices inappropriately. But, bomb squads, SWAT teams, and other special units should be able to use jammers to protect both themselves and us when it makes sense to do so.

Before you start sending me angry email, note that I am talking about public safety, not using jammers to deal with the clods who leave their phones on--and talk on them, usually loudly--in theaters, restaurants and sporting events. There are some things that should be left to angry mobs to handle.

If anyone can buy a jammer, it will be too easy for anyone to render cellular useless. So, I support the existing ban against possession and private ownership of such gear.

As for future authorized users, the trick will be establishing criteria for what amounts to turning off every wireless device in a specific radius, be it a prison, public event, or suspected explosive device.

Where jamming may be used constantly, such as near a prison, I'd want to see signs posted so the public knows cellular 911 is not available. Where jammers are used in public gatherings, there should be announcements and, ideally, enough police so that if there's something to report there is a cop nearby to report it to.

There isn't enough space to fully discuss all the issues involved, but I hope you now understand the stakes involved and why I believe cellular jamming should be another tool given to law enforcement as they strive to protect us from evil.

David Coursey was going to write a bio note for this piece but says he's "all jammed up" at the moment. Write him using the contact form on his Web site.

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