Last week’s New York Times brought the disturbing news that the New York City police department is studying ways to jam mobile communication during “any attack”:
New York police officials are studying the feasibility of disrupting cellphone communications between terrorists during any attack, after revelations that gunmen in Mumbai received electronic transmissions during their killing spree in November.
Police Commissioner Raymond W. Kelly raised the possibility in Washington at a Senate hearing on Thursday, but he noted there were technological hurdles to shutting down cellular service in a narrow location, like a hotel or movie theater.
This is a horrendously bad idea, and would be a terrible mistake.
The Mumbai gunmen used cell phones? Well, yes. They probably also used cars, and they ate food. And they used the Internet for email and for planning their routes with Google Maps. And... oh, right: they used guns.
The point is that they were not being high-tech terrorists. They didn’t have innovative, clever, cutting-edge technology in their hands. Cell phones are everyday gadgets; we’re long past the time when they can be considered something unusual, where anyone should be surprised that they’re used by criminals.
But they’re also used by normal people. They’re also used by law-enforcement and rescue personnel. And that’s as true during a crisis as it is in everyday life. Having the communication layer that cellular and satellite service provide is critical during any emergency situation — including during a terrorist attack.
Commissioner Kelly acknowledges that:
But he stressed, under questioning by senators, that care must be taken in pursuing such plans, suggesting that widespread shutdowns could hamper emergency personnel or keep civilians from making emergency calls."Care must be taken"? We aren’t in a position to block cellular or satellite communication — especially the latter — so specifically that we can avoid hurting emergency communication. And if the 9/11 attacks taught us anything, it should be the importance of effective communication during such a crisis. On United Airlines flight 93, passengers with cell phones provided important information about what went on in the airplane. And in New York City, lack of good communication among emergency personnel hampered the rescue work.
The damage we would do by trying to cut off wireless communication would far exceed the benefit of having it available. Any study that police officials undertake must start with that and go from there. Any plan must consider only tightly targeted shutdowns, and consider what would happen to civilian or emergency communications that should fall within the affected zone (for example, had they cut off cell service to one of the Mumbai hotels, what would that do to any civilians who were trapped there and now had no way to communicate their presence or whereabouts?).
We need to be very careful here.