The company, CellAntenna, filed a lawsuit in the U.S. Court of Appeals in the 11th Circuit in Atlanta on November 22 challenging the Communications Act of 1934, which is enforced by the FCC. The 1934 act and the FCC regulations that go along with it prohibit the use of cellular and radio frequency-jamming equipment, except by federal agencies. This means that local and state officials are not permitted to use such equipment, which could be used to help prevent terrorist attacks.
CellAntenna argues that the Communications Act and the FCC regulations that interpret the law are unconstitutional because they are in conflict with the Homeland Security Act of 2002, adopted by Congress in the wake of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
It's widely known in the intelligence and law enforcement communities that cell phones can be used to remotely detonate some types of bombs. The electrical properties for most batteries used today in cell phones provide enough energy to produce the necessary spark or power to detonate a blasting cap or a modified electrical match, which is often used in plastic explosives. Also, built-in alarms and timing mechanisms available on even low-end cell phones make it easy to use even the simplest and cheapest mobile devices as tools to set off bombs.
Cell phones are believed to have been used in the Madrid train bombings in 2004. And they've been used effectively during the past few years by insurgents to trigger roadside explosions in Iraq. Equipment made by companies such as CellAntenna that can jam or block cellular signals is used by the U.S. military in Iraq to help protect convoys traveling through known trouble spots.
But here in the United States only federal government agencies are allowed to use cell phone scrambling equipment. Local and state law enforcement agencies, which would be the first responders to a terrorist attack here at home, are prohibited by law from obtaining such gear.
"It just doesn't make much sense that the FBI can use this equipment, but that the local and state governments, which the Homeland Security Act has acknowledged as being an important part of combating terrorism, cannot," said Howard Melamed, chief executive of CellAntenna. "We give local police guns and other equipment to protect the public, but we can't trust them with cellular-jamming equipment? It doesn't make sense."
It is this point that is a key element in CellAntenna's argument in its case against the FCC.
"Whereas the FCC prohibits the sale of radio frequency and cellular jammers to state and local police departments, the Homeland Security Act consistently and repeatedly directs the Department of Homeland Security to take whatever measures are necessary to empower local law enforcement agencies and first responders in the fight against global terrorism."
Indeed, the Homeland Security Act specifically states that one of the functions of the Department of Homeland Security is to research, develop, test and evaluate for federal, state and local law enforcement agencies equipment that can be used "in counterterrorism, including devices and technology to disable terrorist devices."
While CellAntenna has based much of its case around the use of its gear to prevent terrorism, Melamed acknowledged the gear could be very useful to law enforcement officials in other capacities. For example, jamming equipment is used in Latin American and Caribbean prisons to prevent inmates from using cell phones to run criminal operations while they serve jail time. Prisons in the U.S., which are mostly run by the state, are prohibited from using such gear.
Mathew Lamita, a corporal with the Dearborn Police Department in Michigan agrees that cell phone-jamming equipment could be a big help. In addition to potentially disabling a bomb, he said, scrambling cell phone communications during a hostage crisis could also be useful.
Where the technology would likely get the most use is during narcotics raids, when officers could use equipment to locally disable cell phones and walkie-talkies used by lookouts in neighborhoods where drug busts are common, he added.
"In order to effectively and safely execute a raid on a house, you need the element of surprise," he said. "A single tip from someone calling on a cell phone or a walkie-talkie down the street can compromise the entire raid."