Jamming Cellphones, Cameras, iPods, Cars

By PatB
Contributing Writer, [GAS]

When I worked at the Department of Homeland Security, I remembered hearing discussions about creating security by denying access to electronics or control systems.  The idea was that in a crowd of people, like in a protest group or political rally, cell phones could be dampened in a region to prevent hostile persons, such as terrorists, from coordinating attacks by using mobiles. This principle could also be used to prevent signals from reaching improvised explosive devices.

With airliners, no-fly zones could be set up around specific ground targets, such as stadiums, and airliners that strayed into the zone would automatically be piloted out.  Such technology didn’t exist, but I’m sure there were contractors trying to peddle their ideas to the Department.

As it turns out, there is a protocol in existence, patented by Microsoft, which can dampen devices that are equipped to listen for such signals.  Microsoft calls it DMP, or “Digital Manners Policy.”  The idea is that people walk into a theater and their cell phones are automatically set on vibrate.  Or a college professor can prevent students from texting each other in class or during exams.  Or a museum can prohibit cameras from taking pictures of their displays.  OnStar already has the ability to kill your engine in the event of vehicle theft.

And while those ideas sound like great applications for the Digital Manners Policy, Bruce Schneier, writing in his column Security Matters on Wired.Com, paints a much darker picture of how this technology can be abused.  He suggests that the police can dampen video cameras to prevent anyone ever again recording a Rodney King beating.  Or perhaps your Media Center computer can no longer record certain television programs.  Or your iPod can no longer share music with systems other than your own.  What if your car is automatically stopped or prevented from entering a highway that is being used for a politician’s motorcade?

The limits to free speech and free press could be deeply impacted by this tool.  Schneier rightly concludes,

“Digital Manners Policies” is a marketing term. Let’s call this what it really is: Selective Device Jamming. It’s not polite, it’s dangerous. It won’t make anyone more secure — or more polite.

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