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NY/NJ Bombings, Cellular & Public Safety: "Best of Times/Worst of Times"

The news from New York and New Jersey about the bombings today in many ways in vindication of cell phone industry and public safety agency planning for new ways to do alerts Because of the timely alert and the public response, the suspect was apprehended with astounding speed! Congratulations to all those in the cellular industry, public safety entities, and FCC involved in developing such alert systems so they could be used effectively in times of emergency.

However, we would like to point out another issue that is in preliminary news accounts: Several of the bombs involved had "flip phones" as part of them. Were these phones used like in Iraq/Afghanistan IEDs as a remote triggering mechanism? Too soon to tell from public sources. But this blog has been pointing out that unlike many other industrialized countries, the US has allowed unlimited sales of "burner"/prepaid phones over the counter with no documentation even as it has required some documentation for any Sudafed purchase to prevent diversion of that medication to crystal meth labs.

While there are valid reasons to allow some sales of prepaid phones without full documentation for battered spouses and others who are being unlawfully harassed, that does not mean you should be able to walk into Best Buy and purchase a dozen for cash without any record!

Those of us who travel overseas without corporate expense accounts and purchase local SIM cards requiring some identification for our unlocked US cell phones know it is not a large burden. But the US cellular interests seem to have had zero interest in this since prepaid phones are very profitable. On 12/27/11 we wrote here:

Unrestrained use of anonymous prepaid cell phones. Prepaid cell phones are a growing market and have many legitimate uses. One writer reports that “in 2009, in excess of 80 percent of new cell phone subscription growth came from prepaid service plans.” But nearly all the cell phones used illicitly in prisons and a major fraction of those used in crimes are prepaid “throw aways”.

Until recently, the largest prepaid operator, TracFone, allowed users to activate a phone bought anonymously and “skip” the step to report name and address. However, the option of buying with cash bagfuls of prepaid phones at Walmart, activating them over the web with a false name and address, and selling them for criminal use is still quite real. Isn’t it odd that we more concerned about over-the-counter sales of Sudafed and Plan B than we are about bagfuls of anonymous cellphones?

Many countries require some identification before prepaid phones can be activated. This is a complex issue both because of the size of the market and the appeal of prepaid phones to market sectors who need them for legitimate economic and safety-related reasons but, as we know from the voter ID controversy, may lack or be unwilling to identify themselves in the standard ways. While I sincerely hope we never have a cellphone-related IED attack in this country, such an event would force a PATRIOT Act-like knee jerk reaction that could be more draconian that a deliberate process now to address the situation.

Isn't it about time now to revise the issue of prepaid cellphones, also used greatly in prisons and by drug dealers, to come up with a reasonable set of registration criteria that does not hinder legitimate users?

Are Sudafed and nail polish remover really
more dangerous than totally undocumented cell phones?


Later reports suggest that the flip phones used in these bombs were the power source and timer and that these bombs were not activated by a remote radio signal. There is no public information as yet on whether the phone were "burner"/prepaid or subscription/postpaid. But it would be a failure of the imagination to not wonder if the remote detonation capacity used in Iraq and Afghanistan by terrorists will arrive in the US.

There is anecdotal evidence in the DC area that for several years motorcades of VIPs have been sometime accompanied by a fog bank of cellular jamming - presumably to defend against this type of attack.


H. R. 5081 Advertising

I was downtown today and picked up copies of 2 local “rags” that focus on politics: The Hill and Politico. They both had the same full 1 page ad from the National Sheriffs’ Association that is shown at left, complete with a 9/11 picture of heroic firemen - not sheriff’s deputies. The ad urges readers to support HR 5081, the”Broadband for First Responders Act of 2010”. The ad states,

On 1/23/10, the NSA adopted a Resolution calling on Congress to oppose the FCC’s plan to outsource police communications to a private carrier. The safety of America is too important to privatize to companies more interested in profit than ensuring state-of-the-art public safety communications. History has shown that commercial networks have not provided the level of service necessary in times of need for public safety during critical events.

What is surprising is that if this is so vital to National Sheriffs’ Association, why isn’t the issue even mentioned on the home page of their website? APCO seems to also be in favor of HR 5081, but they at least have a cryptic link to the issue on their home page.

Now for the statement “History has shown that commercial networks have not provided the level of service necessary in times of need for public safety during critical events”, could this NSA and APCO please tell us what they think of the UK experience where a privately operated system provides all public safety communications in the UK and was built under contract with private funding and annual service fees from public safety users?

I know that APCO and others have vilified the TETRA technology used by Airwave for decades, quite possibly at the behest of a major manufacturer whose public safety market share would be threatened by TETRA, but TETRA is now a dead issue in the US for a variety of reasons.

Why do privately operated systems work in the UK but are impossible here? Do the grass root members of both APCO and this NSA actually support this position or is it mainly supported by certain corporate interests?