December 13, 2007
Privacy and Control Issues: Cell Phone Jamming

I've been following the debate around cell phone jamming since I read Matt Richtel's Nov. 5 New York Times piece on the debate over cell phone jamming and this recent Slate piece about the controversy.

A cell phone jammer is an instrument used to prevent cell phones from receiving or transmitting signals to base stations. Basically, when this device is switched on, cell phones nearby become useless. Jammers are commonly used in places where a phone call would be disruptive because silence is expected (Think schools, libraries, or your next board meeting.).

The devices signal the frustration of some people with the technologies they are constantly surrounded by. People feel the need to be in charge in a technologically controlled world. Let's call this a social defense strategy. Instead of asking others to turn off the electronic device, they take action, employing the jamming device as weaponry. These devices and other "social defense technologies" signal that people are going to take more radical measures to gain control in public spaces.

Interest in controlled social practice rises with the prevalence of electronic devices. With so much noise from people using cell phones and other technology, there is a growing sense that there is ltoo little quiet public space. Appeals to etiquette and courtesy are inadequate; many a performance is disrupted by one well-intentioned but careless audience member.

Technology users themselves disrupt one another; the cell phone talker, TV watcher, iPod listener, BlackBerry writer, and laptop reader all vie for the small remaining bit of quiet public space. The more people depend on technology, the more they are surrounded by others using technology at times and in ways they cannot control.

Frustration mounts, and, at some point, irritated people just aren't going to take it anymore! Enter the jammer, both sword and shield, warding off invasion of increasingly precious space and aggressively disarming all technological invaders who dare.

It is easy to see that jammers would be useful in schools, places of religious worship, and theatres, as well as during plane take-offs and landings and in hospitals, where equipment would be adversely affected. In such places, there is general agreement that such devices should be turned off.

Jammers would give those who control the public space an effective tool to achieve that purpose. No longer would there be the need to seek compliance with limits on the use of technology in such places; compliance would now be assured. Still, what if there was an emergency in which these places and devices were jammed?

Jammers may help further the transition from a traditional public spot to one that is controlled for a social practice. Who gets to control public space? How far can they go? Should one individual with a jammer be able to interfere with another's use of technology? Should access to jammers be limited? Could terrorists employ jammers to nefarious ends?

While it may seem appealing to be able to "turn off" the noise the next time you're in a Starbucks, cell phone jamming is currently illegal in the U.S., as well as some other countries. The Federal Communications Commission has mandated an $11,000 fine, or a one-year jail term, for using these devices. However, nobody has been caught yet.

Of course, most people are not yet aware that jamming technology is affordable. With devices priced from fifty to several hundred dollars, consumers may soon take notice. More than 2,000 jammers have been shipped to the United States from overseas for this holiday season. As cell phones become suited to email and other uses, e.g., camera, video-recorder, music and game player, they are ubiquitous in the United States, their use in public spaces will increase. Therefore, the desire to control public social spaces will increase, just at the same time of increased awareness of the availability of jamming devices to exert that control. If the U.S. ban on jamming devices is successfully challenged or commonly violated, it could alter the meaning of our public spaces.

But public spaces aren't the only matter at risk here. There are numerous privacy concerns raised by this burgeoning technology. Related to the cell phone jammer device, there is a specially designed phone that can answer incoming calls while appearing to be switched off. With this device turned on, one could leave a phone in a room, step away, call it, and then eavesdrop on what others say.

Control of electronic devices extends beyond cell phones. On first blush, the TV-B-Gone device seems far less sinister. Like a remote on steroids, this device allows you to turn the television sets on (or off) within a certain range. Sounds appealing if you have thin walls and your neighbor loves to belt along to Fox's American Idol or if your date keeps staring over you at the sports event on the bar's TV. But one can easily imagine warring neighbors, pranksters, and exes using this technology to wreak havoc. It seems a small step to consider whether this technology could abort access to news, or to interfere with satellite communications or emergency warning systems.

As the existence of these types of technological "weapons" become more widely known, the next logical question will be, "How I can find a way to block the block against me?"

The mobile media panel at FoE2 offered an interesting debate about people's privacy concerns with cell phones. Bob Schukai told us that, in Korea, it is common to track your friends on a map using your phone. Marc Davis added that, through users, media is becoming a collective map of human attention. However, there has to be some capability of controlling the amount of information that is disclosed. Is it okay for everyone to know where I am because I have a cell phone?

Privacy issues in public spaces are now being seen in social networking sites and massively multiplayer online role playing games (MMORPG's). MMORPG's already use player-tracking tools, but players may not realize it. I'm not sure many gamers would feel comfortable that corporations "own" the behavior of their virtual avatars. Facebook game application creators have access to consumer data if people choose to play their game. This practice operates in ways counter to the positive "spreadable" effects that social networking sites (and other online communities) encourage. There is a mounting tension as people increasingly desire stronger, more personalized connections within their online communities and a greater need for control in an environment that becomes more technologically dependent.

Certainly, I am intrigued by the possibilities of this technology to transform and silence a space that is cluttered with noise. Yet I am concerned about the potential privacy, security, and safety issues posed by interfering with an individual's ability to connect. How do we negotiate the potential danger and growing prevalence of the jamming device?

Technological innovation is inherently progressive, and there is no stopping the development of smarter devices, to be used for good or ill. We hope advances in science can advance civilization; but the discovery leads to the development of the atomic bomb. We hope we are creating technology to connect us to one another, but it can be used to detonate privacy.

Ultimately, technology's use must depend on the user. Interestingly, the success of technology itself has created the circumstances that would cause individuals to feel they need technological devices to protect their environments. It is easy enough to attribute the use of jammers to radical or misguided users. I believe it is wiser to view the users of "social defense technologies" as sending a message that we should heed. Rather than continue on this path, it is time we all become more respectful of the public space we share, keeping in mind that many wish it to be a place that is less technically "jammed" than it is becoming.