You Could Be Jammin'

There's a way to foil rude cell phone users. But it's illegal.

This spring, the normally mild-tempered newspaper USA Today dispatched a team of investigative reporters around the country to report on the manners -- or lack thereof -- of ordinary Americans using cell phones. Not surprisingly, the journalistic sleuths discovered that San Franciscans are generally rude and cranky, and that our city's cell phone abusers, in particular, are the worst of a bad lot.

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.

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