Legions of the self-absorbed yak on cell phones at the movies, the symphony, in restaurants, on public transportation -- even in restrooms. They import the intimacy of their boudoirs into public spaces, seemingly oblivious to the cringing horror strangers feel when held hostage to private chatter. No public place is immune from penetration by creepy cyberpeople dialing and pacing -- constantly late for an important date -- encased in a cocoon of manufactured importance.
People who conduct loud cell phone conversations in public spaces annihilate social boundaries. They violate the unspoken rules of civilized people.
But there may be a way to strike back.
What technology hath wrought, technology can undo, in the form of relatively small, simple devices that can be used to jam cell phone conversations. The delightful little machines transmit radio waves on the same frequencies used by cell phones, thereby interfering with the link between a cell phone and its base station.
Keep in mind that manufacturing, importing, marketing, or operating such devices is a violation of Federal Communications Commission rules. In response to numerous inquiries about the legality of jammers, the FCC recently ginned up a press release explaining the myriad federal laws that might be violated by a revenge-seeking cell phone hater. Lawbreakers might have their jamming equipment seized, be fined up to $11,000, and spend as long as a year in the slammer.
But jammers are being manufactured and sold outside the country, because they are legal to make in other parts of the world. Some of the devices, which cost between $500 and $1,000, are apparently starting to slip into the U.S.
What's more, for about $100, anyone with a small degree of electrical aptitude can make his own pocket-sized jammer, although that would, of course, be illegal.
The FCC is charged with enforcing the laws against jammers, but it has yet to seize any devices or prosecute an operator. One reason for the FCC's lack of enthusiasm could be that among the major users of jammers in the U.S., supposedly, are the Department of Defense and an array of law enforcement agencies. Not to mention powerful Fortune 500 corporations with secrets to protect.
Arik Goldshtein is senior vice president of Netline Communications Technologies Ltd., based in Israel. Goldshtein and two retired Israeli military intelligence officers formed Netline in 1998 to market a cell phone jamming device that was invented by the electronic warfare division of the Israeli army. They call their jammer C-Guard. It is a digital machine that can be programmed to block different cell phone frequencies at ranges up to a 450-foot radius. A portable C-Guard costs about $900 and can be ordered on the Netline Web site at www.netline.co.il.
According to Goldshtein, who says his company is the world's largest manufacturer of cell phone jammers, U.S. government agencies and private companies all over America have already begun buying the devices to build cellular "firewalls" around their defensible spaces.
The factory-made jammers can be mounted on the walls of a theater auditorium, a hospital operating room, a streetcar, or a private business to suppress cell phone use within a specific area.
Goldshtein says that Netline has sold hundreds of C-Guards to U.S. customers. The Department of Defense and the Central Intelligence Agency, he claims, are "evaluating" the device for various security applications, ranging from counterespionage to throwing an electronic blanket of silence around a building held by terrorists-with-cell-phones. According to Goldshtein, C-Guard is very popular in America with run-of-the-mill police departments and anti-terrorist squads.
Like everyone else, the police and military are breaking the law if they buy and operate jammers, according to John Reed, an FCC spokesman. But the military often fails to determine if its purchases are allowed under the nation's telecommunications laws. "Law enforcement agencies often buy anything because they cannot believe anyone would sell them anything illegal," says Reed.
The federal Office of Procurement says it has no record of purchases from Netline.
Jammers can now be legally used only in Japan, but the prohibitions against them in other countries, including Israel, are often not enforced, according to Goldshtein. In anticipation of successful public pressure to relax the U.S. anti-jammer laws, Netline has registered a patent in this country. Goldshtein, of course, declines to reveal the identity of the private parties who already own C-Guards in the U.S., but he is avidly looking for a U.S. financial backer willing to test the legality of cell phone jamming in court against inevitable lawsuits by the telecommunications industry.
Netline's lawyers feel that C-Guard does not, in fact, violate FCC regulations because it does not transmit radio signals to a receiver. Goldshtein says that creating a firewall -- a barrier to transmissions -- is not the same as trespassing on licensed airwaves. This putative defense might not work in the U.S., though, because the FCC code broadly prohibits "interfering" with radio communications.
Still, the subject of cell phone jamming is a legal gray area that has not been adjudicated anywhere. Goldshtein feels that the governments of the world are reluctant to crack down on cell phone jamming because public opinion is overwhelmingly in favor of it. He says the Netline Web site gets hundreds of e-mails everyday from people in the U.S. who either want to buy a C-Guard or open a distributorship.
Goldshtein pooh-poohs the products of Netline's two or three competitors, which include a Korean laboratory that sells a portable jammer for $150. "It only jams for two feet!" he exclaims. Goldshtein asserts that the technology of jamming is super-sophisticated and that ordinary people will not be able to build jammers in a home workshop.
That is nonsense, says an electronics expert consulted by SF Weekly who, for obvious reasons, wishes to remain anonymous. The expert says that the hardware for building a cell phone jammer can be cannibalized from the base unit of a cheap household cordless phone. All that is needed are a few inexpensive components from Radio Shack, such as a 10-milliwatt amplifier, wire, a battery, and an antenna. It's like building a small radio that transmits on a select frequency band allotted to cell phones, such as 800 megahertz. Ramping the device up to 2 watts of power will wipe out cell phone communications in a 200-foot radius, says the expert. The essential technology and schematics are available in basic electronics textbooks. And on the Web.
No law-abiding citizen would try to build his own jammer, naturally, but a word of caution is in order in case someone feels inclined to tinker with the technology. Builders of cell phone jammers need to be aware of the possible danger of zapping pacemakers and other medical equipment. It's best to limit the power source to milliwatts -- shrinking the area of coverage to include only the cell phone noise polluting your immediate vicinity.
Goldshtein is opposed to using jammers in personal vendettas against the ill-mannered. He says it would be like snipping the burning end of a smoker's cigarette with a scissors just because you do not like secondhand smoke. The possibility of cheap jammers proliferating seems to worry Goldshtein, whose product is expensive and well-positioned to dominate a legal market. Netline is obviously aiming at institutional and corporate markets, and has little patience for anarchists wielding soldering irons.
Should cell phone jamming ever become legal, however, jammer manufacturers will, no doubt, try to license the firewall technology so that only their patented devices will be legal. And cell phone manufacturers will develop countermeasures. Electronic jamming wars could ensue around the planet, perhaps escalating into armed struggle as cell phone combatants assassinate each other by remotely triggering plastic explosives planted in the cell phones of enemies -- as was done in 1996 when Israeli intelligence forces summarily blew off the head of Yahya Ayyash, aka "The Engineer," whom Shin Bet suspected of masterminding several bus bombings.
Perhaps it would be far less costly to humanity if cell phone users simply learned some basic manners.