Cell-phone terrorists

Listening to SkyNews via Fox via Sirius this morning I twice heard correspondents say that had just been ordered by the police to get off their cell phones because they feared the radio signals could detonate a bomb.

Today the Wall Street Journal reports (free link) about cell phones being used to wage terrorism in Iraq.

Saddam Hussein outlawed cellphones, determined to maintain an iron grip on his subjects. But as Iraq catches up with the world’s information revolution, cellphones have become as commonplace here as they are almost everywhere else in the world. Now, they are increasingly being used as battle tools — to set off bombs from afar, to target fire and to provide insurgents with instant communications.

Meanwhile, the cells in some New York tunnels were turned off after 7/7 out of fear they could be used by terrorists but they were just turned back on because, rightly, authorities say that they are needed for communication in an emergency.

Meanwhile, a study says that hands-free phones don’t reduce the dangers of driving and calling.

Cell phones are getting cultural cooties.

Cell-phone terrorists

Cell-phone terrorists

: Listening to SkyNews via Fox via Sirius this morning I twice heard correspondents say that had just been ordered by the police to get off their cell phones because they feared the radio signals could detonate a bomb.

Today the Wall Street Journal reports (free link) about cell phones being used to wage terrorism in Iraq.

Saddam Hussein outlawed cellphones, determined to maintain an iron grip on his subjects. But as Iraq catches up with the world’s information revolution, cellphones have become as commonplace here as they are almost everywhere else in the world. Now, they are increasingly being used as battle tools — to set off bombs from afar, to target fire and to provide insurgents with instant communications.

Meanwhile, the cells in some New York tunnels were turned off after 7/7 out of fear they could be used by terrorists but they were just turned back on because, rightly, authorities say that they are needed for communication in an emergency.

Meanwhile, a study says that hands-free phones don’t reduce the dangers of driving and calling.

Cell phones are getting cultural cooties.

  • Mumblix Grumph

    Actually, Jeff. Radio silence is a standard procedure when explosive devices are involved.
    It’s one of the first things they told us at a post-9/11 staff meeting.
    In case of a bomb threat, if we find something suspicious, we DO NOT get on a radio or phone and call for help. It could interact with the bomb’s electronics, sort of like on a airplane, I guess.

  • Brian H

    We’re all Gerald Fords: we can’t talk and guide 1 or 2 tons of metal at the same time. But hands-free would (does?) allow motorcyclists to cell chat while driving . . . .

  • http://futureofradio.typepad.com/ Harry

    Control of various devices by dialing “touch tones” has been done by landline phones for years (you do so when you’re instructed to “touch 1 for new accounts, touch 2 for existing accounts,” etc. when you call a bank customer service number). It would be a very simple matter to connect an operating cell phone to a DTMF decoder/controller in order to activate a bomb or other device. The pre-9/11 bans on airplane cell phone use were mainly the result of a desire to make passengers use those expensive seat-back phones—-the use of cell phones on the 9/11 flights didn’t interfere with the electronics or navigation systems of those flights. But an on-board passenger could easily detonate a bomb in checked baggage via cell phone.

  • http://dieguisto.blogspot.com Jon Gallagher

    Good God, does no one here know how a cell phone (actually the whole cellular network) work?

    There’s no such thing as radio silence in a cellular network unless you turn off not just the phones but *all* the base stations the phones talk to. Depending on the protocol (these days usually GSM [boo] or CDMA [hurrah! Yea America!]) the base station is constantly broadcasting in order to facilitate call initiation or to allow units to roam into the base station.

    From what I’ve seen the majority of IED’s triggered by cell phones have either been set to go off by the ringer (usually in vibe mode) or a text message. The best way to avoid this is to run jammers, just a high-power radio broadcasting pure noise in the cell frequencies. (Works really well at keeping restaurants quiet as well, but in civilized parts of the world the local radio gendarmes will shut you down toot sweet). But they also tend to bleed into several useful frequencies that the military uses as well. It’s kind of like shining a blinding light in an area. Sure the enemy is blind, but so are you (at least in the visual ranges).

    The hands-free study is very interesting to anyone who has had to use communications while traveling (e.g. piloting an aircraft). When you are talking to a tower your communications is in line with what you are doing. But it’s rare that our cellphone calls (and certainly rarer for the blondes here in Southern California) have anything to do with our driving. Therefore the infinitesmal capacity of the average driver here in San Diego is divided between talking and driving, and it’s a rare thing to find someone here who can do either well.

  • james

    Well, it’s the next logical step in the War on Terror.
    If we truly want to be secure, we have to make certain sacrafices. We have to give up certain freedoms to preserve our freedom, democracy and peace. Among those, should be cell phones. Experts know how dangerous they are (you can’t use them coming through immigration in the U.S.).
    We should have to apply to Homeland Security for a cell phone. And, only those of us with good reasons to have them should be allowed. The resy of us will have to do without.
    I rather not have a cell phone than be dead.

  • Lynn

    “I rather not have a cell phone than be dead.”
    I think James, that’s a way to get dead.
    Just like guns and drugs, the bad will always find a way to possess whatever is banned.
    There are only three scenarios:
    1. just the good have it – IMPOSSIBLE.
    2. both good and bad have it
    3. only the bad have it – unacceptable
    Liberals always plead for #1, but since it is impossible, if they ever got their way, we’d wind up with #3.
    Imagine every good citizen disarmed of cell phones and guns, and all the bad hombres have them. Sometimes I think the liberals are hand in hand with the enemy.
    Only #2 is acceptable.

  • james

    Lynn:
    Why don’t you just join the terrorists? You sound so liberal.
    We all have to sacrifice. If “only the bad [guys]” have cell phones that great. We’ll know just who and where they are (cell phones don’t exist in a vacuum).
    You can’t have it both ways. You want to be safe or you want to be free? Me? — I’ll choose safe. And, besides, I’ll stand with my government. Not with America hating liberals who only want to criticize GWB and the War on Terror.
    This is WWIV and we either make the sacrifices our government wants or, well, you can go to Guantanamo. Besides, if you donít, weíll all be speaking Arab and worshiping Allah 5 times a day anyway.

  • Mike

    everyone, james is a liberal troll.
    this is his attempt at sarcasm.
    don’t feed him.

  • james

    Mike:
    You’re the liberal. If you say you’re not, then tell me why you don’t stand up for your country (probably the same reason you’re not fighting in Iraq, you’re a coward).

  • jb

    re:Meanwhile, the cells in some New York tunnels were turned off after 7/7 out of fear they could be used by terrorists but they were just turned back on because, rightly, authorities say that they are needed for communication in an emergency.
    Jeff, you’re off here– the NY PD realized that a bomb could be detonated by a timer, even without a signal, or while turned off. Shocking that they were not better informed on how terrorists actually operate. perhaps they were too busy tracking politcal protesters.

  • Soldier’s Dad

    Radio transmitters are always turned off as a way of precaution around explosives. The energy transmitted by a cell tower is constant. The energy transmitted by a cell phone is not.(Note battery usage during ‘talk time’)

  • penny

    Cell phones in Iraq are also increasingly used by the good guys to report suspicious terrorist activities in neighborhoods. It cuts both ways.

  • http://dieguisto.blogspot.com Jon Gallagher
      Radio transmitters are always turned off as a way of precaution around explosives. The energy transmitted by a cell tower is constant. The energy transmitted by a cell phone is not.(Note battery usage during ‘talk time’)

    Respectfully, you are mixing apples, oranges and bricks here. The typical cellphone is way below a half watt in radiated power (I believe that maximum transmit power under AMPS was .5W) especially these days in digital networks, while a typical walkie-talkie (actually handie-talkie, walkie-talkies were originally backpack units) can run as high a 10 Watts.

    Under CDMA the base station is constantly sending messages to individual units to raise or lower power to maintain a constant “received volume” (go with the analogy) at the base station. That way CDMA can distiguish the calls by their Walsh codes without being blasted. Meanshile GSM is constantly negotiating with the phones as time slots are taken up and abandoned by callers. Even in a quiescent network the base station runs a constant backgroud chatter seeking new callers.

    All of this is actually the reason your battery lasts so long. Under AMPS (the old US standard for analog cell phones), you had to spend a long time negotiating with the cell tower to get a frequency pair. Watch your battery usage if you find yourself in an area without digital coverage. I’ll bet your battery won’t last 8 hours.

    I’m not trying to come off snarkily, and I hope that comes through. It bugs me when the press and (less likely) governmental aganecies screw this up.

    My personal philosphy is that any communication medium is a positive in any situation, especially terrorism. What little we know about what happened on the planes September 11th is overwhelmingly due to passenger calls, while people who got the straight scoop from calling friends watching CNN were able to save themselves in the towers.

    I certainly do not begrudge the military mounting mobile jammers to prevent triggering IEDs, but if I were responsible for a neighborhood in Baghdad I would seriously consider giving every mother in the neighborhood a cell phone then plaster my number on every wall every day. So what if I spend $1,000/month on cellphones? If I save one trooper or marine’s life, I’ve saved the government money. I’d just find someone to challenge a a single KBR bill and have the budget for a decade.

  • Catherine

    “You’re the liberal!!!” “No, YOU’RE the liberal!” I love the comments on this blog sometimes.
    So what next–you can’t bring your cell phone on the train? Jeff, are you willing to give that up for all your so-called security? Is having a cell phone in your bag now going to get you turned away from the train station?

  • ted

    Can the cell phone towers in tunnels be configured to allow outgoing calls only?
    I do believe that driving while using a cell phone should be a DUI. Distracted by alcohol or distracted by a cell phone conversation doesn’t change the danger, so why should the penalty be any different?

  • http://dieguisto.blogspot.com Jon Gallagher
      Can the cell phone towers in tunnels be configured to allow outgoing calls only?

    Theoretically maybe, practically no. In modern digital cellular protocols the assignment of phones to base stations in non-deterministic. Let’s say you are about to enter a tunnel. You are coming into range of base station (BS) A that controls tunnel calls, but you are still in range of BS B and C that control other areas. If A refuses inbound calls, B and C will accept, because the network can’t tell that you are about to enter a tunnel. So call setup ocurrs in the open air, then, as you say “Hello” you enter the tunnel, meaning B or C hand off to A, et voila, or kaboom.

    It gets even more complicated when you use the latest versions that take advantage of multipath to do non-line-of-sight acquisition. If you decide that A will only originate and handoff calls, to prevent a call origination from another cell from ebing handed off to the tunnel, then A will block handoffs not only in its line of sight, but where ever the signal gets reflected to. The network implications for this are starting to give me a headache

    What *I* think it comes down to is that you have to stay awake, aware and take responsibility for what’s around you, and use the communications network to get a response as necessary.