Are Cell Phone Jammers Legal?

A cell phone jammer is a device that emits signals in the same frequency range that cell phones use, effectively blocking their transmissions by creating strong interference. Someone using a cell phone within the range of a jammer will lose signal, but have no way of knowing a jammer was the reason. The phone will simply indicate poor reception strength.

With the ubiquitous use of cell phones, a backlash has occurred. While some people practice cell phone etiquette, many others noisily discuss their private, professional or mundane business in public areas, forcing everyone nearby to listen. On trains, subways, buses, in the grocery market, shopping mall and café, people are aggravating fellow citizens with their non-stop chit-chat. This has caused some people to take matters into their own hands. With a cell phone jammer in purse or pocket, jabbermouths can be turned off with the flip of a switch — and they won’t be able to reconnect as long as the jammer is activated unless they move far enough away from the source.

It seems a tidy solution, however, there’s a problem. Cell phone jammers are illegal in most countries — except to military, law enforcement and certain governmental agencies.

In the U.S. the FCC (Federal Communications Commission) makes certain frequencies available to broadcasters for public use. When an end-user pays to use that spectrum, jamming the signal is paramount to ‘property theft.’ The FCC is also concerned about potential “leakage” — of jammers interfering with frequencies outside the range of cell phones, like garage door openers or medical equipment; and it’s worth noting that over 100,000 emergency calls are made each day from cell phones. Anyone caught manufacturing, selling, owning, or using a jammer in the U.S. is punishable by an $11,000 fine and up to a year in prison for each offense.

But the stiff penalty hasn’t stopped proliferation of the devices, perhaps because the FCC has not held anyone accountable. According to one interview with Richard Welch, associate chief of the FCC’s Enforcement Bureau, no actions have been taken by the FCC because “nobody has complained.” This isn’t surprising considering people can’t tell the difference between being jammed and simply having poor signal strength which comes and goes with the best of phones even under normal circumstances.

Cell phone jammers are available in different styles and sizes from personal hand-held models that look like cell phones themselves, to units that resemble routers with multiple antennas, to even larger briefcase-style jammers. While personal jammers create a bubble of anywhere from 30 — 100 feet (9 – 30 meters) depending on the model, more powerful devices can create “dead space” of up to a mile (1.6 km) in radius. This can be useful around a Presidential motorcade, for example, to keep terrorists from detonating a bomb from miles away or even from outside the country. By wiring a cell phone to explosives the device can be triggered by simply placing a call to the phone, as was done in May 2002 by Palestinian militants in Tel Aviv when they targeted an Israeli fuel depot by rigging one of its fuel trucks.

Law enforcement also uses cell phone jammers in hostage situations to keep the suspect isolated, and in South America, banks use the devices to prevent robbers from tipping off outside accomplices to departing customers leaving with large withdrawals.

Proprietors of many kinds of businesses would like to use cell phone jammers. Restaurant owners and theater houses are just two examples of places that regularly receive complaints from patrons over cell phone abuse. Short of providing expensive metal shielding in the construction of the buildings to block cell phone signals, (which is legal), it’s understandable that placing an inexpensive device in the back office to surreptitiously block cell phone usage in the establishment might be tempting. Hospitals would also like to jam cell phones which can interfere with medical equipment. Churches, libraries, courthouses and business owners that want to boost employee productivity are all examples of potential customers of cell jamming technologies.

Personal cell phone jammers start at about $250 (U.S.D.) and are widely available online despite their illegal status in most countries. The top manufacturers reportedly sell primarily to military and law enforcement but will sell the devices to anyone with the disclaimer that it is up to the buyer to make sure the device is legal in his or her country and that the buyer assumes all legal responsibility for buying, owning, or using the device.

The cell phone industry opposes the use of jammers and many have invested money in education towards cell phone etiquette as an alternative answer to the growing problem of discourteous cell phone users.

The Legal Issues

Cell-phone users don’t know they’re being jammed. The phones just indicate that there’s no service or no signal from the network. The jammer simply interrupts the phone’s ability to establish a link with the nearest cell-phone tower.

In the United States, United Kingdom, Australia and many other countries, blocking cell-phone services (as well as any other electronic transmissions) is against the law. In the United States, cell-phone jamming is covered under the Communications Act of 1934, which prohibits people from “willfully or maliciously interfering with the radio communications of any station licensed or authorized” to operate. In fact, the “manufacture, importation, sale or offer for sale, including advertising, of devices designed to block or jam wireless transmissions is prohibited” as well.

Jamming is seen as property theft, because a private company has purchased the rights to the radio spectrum, and jamming the spectrum is akin to stealing the property the company has purchased. It also represents a safety hazard because jamming blocks all calls in the area, not just the annoying ones. Jamming a signal could block the call of a babysitter frantically trying to contact a parent or a someone trying to call for an ambulance.

The Federal Communications Commission is charged with enforcing jamming laws. However, the agency has not yet prosecuted anyone for cell-phone jamming. Under the U.S. rules, fines for a first offense can range as high as $11,000 for each violation or imprisonment for up to one year, and the device used may also be seized and forfeited to the government.

In most countries, it is illegal for private citizens to jam cell-phone transmission, but some countries are allowing businesses and government organizations to install jammers in areas where cell-phone use is seen as a public nuisance. In December 2004, France legalized cell-phone jammers in movie theaters, concert halls and other places with performances. France is finalizing technology that will let calls to emergency services go through. India has installed jammers in parliament and some prisons. It has been reported that universities in Italy have adopted the technology to prevent cheating. Students were taking photos of tests with their camera phones and sending them to classmates.

With phones ringing in movies, weddings and classrooms, it’s no wonder people want to tone down the intrusion. So what legally can be done to stop annoying cell-phone use?

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