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Cell phone block eyed
Cell-phone use could be blacked out at LAX, the Rose Bowl and Universal Studios under an anti-terrorism plan being formulated by Sheriff Lee Baca and other law enforcement authorities.
Baca is exploring the use of jamming equipment -- already used widely in foreign countries and to protect President Bush -- to interrupt cell-phone signals if a terrorist attack was expected in Los Angeles.
The issue gained urgency after terrorists used cell phones to detonate explosives March 11 in railway bombings in Spain. Baca, who recently returned from a fact-finding trip to Pakistan, said a cell-phone jamming device helped avert the attempted assassination of Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf on Dec. 14.
"We have to look at this very realistically," Baca said. "Public safety is more important than public convenience. We want to take the responsibility head-on and do the best we can, protecting people against terrorist attacks."
Los Angeles Police Department Lt. Horace Frank said the department's bomb squad is very interested in the idea and LAPD Counter-Terrorism Bureau Chief John Miller met with Baca recently to discuss the proposal.
"It certainly sounds like a technology that we would be interested in," Frank said. "But I'm sure there are hurdles we'll have to cross."
Various companies already sell equipment on the Internet that block cell phone signals. The products include jammers that overwhelm cell phone frequencies, systems that mute cell phone ringers and sensors that detect cell phones.
The products range from hand-held jammers costing a few hundred dollars that darken cell-phone signals over a range up to 15 meters, to nearly $10,000 suitcase-sized equipment sold to government and military agencies that can block signals up to several miles.
"You can block a couple of miles or just in the theater," said Bill Vorlicek, vice president of the Emergency Management Group at Kroll Inc. in New York City.
"The military has airplanes that can fly over and block an entire city. A lot of hospitals use them to prevent cell phones from triggering someone's defibrillator. A lot of devices in hospitals are frequency-controlled."
Although Baca's proposal could be useful in protecting the public, critics say the more powerful jamming equipment could create unanticipated problems, such as preventing fire and police personnel from communicating via cell phone or even on their own vehicle radios during an emergency.
"Is the cell-phone jamming equipment a tool? Yes. But it's not the panacea. It's not the silver bullet," Vorlicek said. "The idea has been tossed around for use in New York, but not for anti-terrorism, but in theaters to prevent the annoyance of cell phones going off during a movie or opera."
The cell-phone industry objects to the use of the jammers, arguing that the airwaves are public property and jammers violate the rights of cell-phone users.
Currently, there are 162 million cell-phone users in the United States. In California, more than 17 million people have cell phones and in the greater Los Angeles area, more than half the population sport the fashionable accessory, according to industry figures.
Under law, the importation, sale or use of cell-phone jammers is banned in the United States and can result in Federal Communications Commission fines of up to $11,000 daily per device. An FCC spokesperson said the fines have been levied against people for not holding a license to use the devices.
"The FCC rules are clear," said Travis Larson, spokesman for the international Cellular Telecommunications & Internet Association. "Jamming is illegal, but whether there is an exception made for law enforcement is a decision the FCC will have to make."
An FCC spokeswoman in Los Angeles said they are unaware of any local law enforcement agency in the nation that uses jammers now.
"In an emergency situation, there are different exceptions that could be made," she said. "But that's a decision that would have to come from the headquarters in Washington, D.C."
Currently, the Secret Service uses cell-phone jamming equipment when President Bush travels in his limousine, on Air Force One and when he gives a speech. Casinos use jammers to prevent people from cheating using cell phones and some federal law enforcement agencies use the equipment during hostage situations.
John Mack, chief executive officer of USBX Advisory Services, a Santa Monica-based investment banking firm with a specialty focus on the security industry, said the jammers could have the inadvertent effect of blocking communications between first responders in a terrorist attack.
"Many police, fire department, hazmat units and a whole host of people rely on cell-phone communications and to the extent you use jamming devices designed to jam terrorists, you may be jamming the first responders, whose communication is critical in an emergency situation," Mack said.
He noted that since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, law enforcement and fire agencies have taken steps to develop "inter-operability" equipment that eliminates incompatibility among communication systems.
"In a significant terrorist situation, having all agencies being able to communicate is a huge issue," Mack said. "If every time you think there is going to be a terrorist attack you engage the cell-phone jammers in a five- mile radius, not only are you throwing normal commerce and business into disarray, first responders could be blocked from communicating.
"Sure, you could say that you'll get technology specifically designed to jam only the right kind of cellular frequencies, but first responders use all sorts of different kinds of technology and I don't think you could say that first responders wouldn't be jammed while the stuff terrorists are working with would."
If officials received intelligence that terrorists planned to detonate a bomb at Los Angeles International Airport, he would favor using jamming equipment until a bomb squad could render the explosives safe.
"But every day the LAPD responds to a hundred situations where a water heater blows up or noxious gases are emitted in a car crash. Will we presume those are terrorist threats and engage in cell-phone jamming in a big circumference?"
For cell-phone user Phyllis Hines of Lake View Terrace, Baca's proposal sounds good.
"If it's a matter of saving lives, I think that takes precedent over the right to communicate and I would support something like that," Hines said. "It would seem to take some of the danger out of the times we are living in now.
"But if it became an invasion of our privacy or was overused, there would need to be restrictions placed on it. It can't be used as a general policy. It has to be restricted to emergencies."
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