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  (Source: MTV)
60-year-old jammed signals for two years to try to "keep drivers safe" by preventing cell phone use

In April 2013, T-Mobile U.S., Inc. (TMUS) brand MetroPCS noticed that it had been experiencing mysterious interference on Interstate 4 (I-4), a major east-west highway in Florida.  It began to investigate the disturbance, which seemed to occur at regular intervals during commuting hours and was very location-specific.
 
I. Vigilante Jammer Polices Florida Highway
 
In collaboration with the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC), MetroPCS used signal analysis to discover wideband (broadcast activity with wide frequencies or wavelengths) signals that were causing localized service disruptions.  The investigation led to a surprising discovery and a hot controversy.
 
MetroPCS discovered that a blue Toyota Motor Corp. (TYO:7203) Highlander SUV was transmitting the signals and appeared to be jamming fellow motorists.  But despite its data, the FCC was unable to convince local authorities to track down the driver for some time.
 
Earlier this year, however, two Hillsborough County Sherriff’s deputies pulled over the owner of the vehicle – 60-year-old Jason R. Humphreys -- for a traffic offense.  When approaching the vehicle their two-way radios were disconnected from the dispatcher.  The officers correctly identified something was wrong, and asked to search the vehicle.

Texter
Florida has no long against talking on the phone (even holding the handset), while driving, so Mr. Humphreys took matters into his own hands. [Image Source: Getty Images]

They found Mr. Humphreys possessed a jamming device hidden behind his seat that was capable of locally blocking three bands commonly used for cell phones and radios.
 
At that point Mr. Humphreys came clean, admitting he had purchased the device with the intention of committing a bit of vigilante justice on his daily commute.  While many states have laws against talking on a cell phone while driving (typically with exemptions for emergencies and hands-free headsets), he was troubled that Florida has no such law.  And while Florida does have a law against texting while driving, he was upset that many of his fellow Floridians weren't following the law.
 
So he purchased a jammer from an unofficial source, which he believed would only interfere with motorists within 30 feet of him (or so he said).  He reportedly commented to the police officers:

[I bought it] to keep people from talking on their cellphones while driving.

He admitted that he had been using the device for the past year-and-a-half to two years.  
 
II. FCC Fines Driver $48K for Public Endangerment
 
Police seized the device and gave it to the FCC to complete the investigation.
 
The FCC concluded that the range of the jammer was substantially understated by Mr. Humphreys and was strong enough to block cell phone towers along his highway commute.  Indeed, MetroPCS noticed that after the device was seized the regional disruptions to its service stopped.
 
Now the FCC has smacked Mr. Humphreys with a whopping $48,000 USD fine for three counts of operating an illegal signal-jamming device.
 
While the device may have kept Mr. Humphreys safer from accidents by preventing drivers around him from being distracted via their cell phones, authorities complain that the vigilante move endangered public safety.  Then again, maybe he made roads more dangerous as some studies have indicated people engaged in conversation may be safer drivers.

I-4 Florida
Interstate-4, the Florida highway where the jamming was occurring.
[Image Source: Anthony Coletti]

In a release the FCC wrote that jammers are "generally unlawful" under federal law [PDF].  Currently U.S. federal law (in part via the FCC's policies) forbids the import, marketing, sale, or possession of jammers; as they might interfere with citizens calling 911, police radios (as happened in Mr. Humphreys' case), or other emergency responders (ambulances, firefighters, etc.).
 
In the document announcing Mr. Humphrey's fine, the FCC writes:

[Jammers] can endanger life and property by preventing individuals from making 911 or other emergency calls or disrupting communications essential to aviation and marine safety.

Due to the nature and extended duration of Mr. Humphreys’ violations, we take an aggressive approach and propose the per violation statutory maximum of $16,000 for each of the offenses – unauthorized operation, use of an illegal device, and causing intentional interference.

Mr. Humphreys has 30 days to respond to the fine.  If he fails to respond, he will have to pay the full amount.
 
III. Employee Fined in 2013 for Using GPS Jammer to Escape Workplace Monitoring Tech.
 
This is only the second such major headlines-grabbing fine against an individual.  The first came last year when commercial truck driver Gary Bojczak was caught using a cigarette-lighter powered GPS jamming device to block the GPS tracking that his company installed in his truck to track his job performance.  
 
Mr. Bojczak's red Ford Motor Comp. (F) F-150 pickup truck was identified via triangulation by investigators with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) following reports of dangerous disruptions to the GPS signals at the Newark, New Jersey's Liberty International Airport.  Pilots used the GPS signals to help them land, so that jamming incident was considered very dangerous.

Liberty Airport
A New Jersey driver inadvertently interfered with GPS signals used to land aircraft at the local Liberty International Airport.  The incident, which occurred last year, was triggered by the driver trying to avoid a workplace monitoring device. [Image Source: AP]

The FCC originally looked to smack the truck driver with $42,500 USD, but settled on a fine of $32,000 USD after he appealed.  The FCC wrote in a notice:

We caution Mr. Bojczak and other potential violators that we will continually reevaluate this approach and may pursue alternative or more aggressive sanctions should the approach prove ineffective in deterring the unlawful operation of signal jammers.

For example, as a companion to a proposed monetary forfeiture, we could also refer such matters to the U.S. Department of Justice for further consideration under the criminal statutes.

The New Jersey incident, which basically involved an employee playing hooky from work – and as a result accidentally creating jamming of signals used by air traffic -- is clearly very different in nature from a motorist intentionally jamming cell phone frequencies in a vigilante effort to try to create safety.  But the FCC argues that both incidents could create dangerous situations for members of the public, albeit in different ways.
 
IV. Texas Company Also Fined Last Year; Usage of Illegal Jammers is on the Rise
 
The FCC last year also issued a fine of $29,000 USD to Houston, Texas based R&N Manufacturing, Ltd (RNM) who was found to be using a jammer to stop employees from making phone calls at work.  Again, MetroPCS seemed to be among the most aware and savvy carriers as it was the first to notice and pinpoint the interference with the help of the FCC.

R&N Manufacturing
R&N Manufacturing in Houston, Texas, was fined for using an illegal jammer.

While jammers are illegal in the U.S. they are easy to make and purchase from simple electronics, leading to a thriving black market on loosely regulated internet sales sites, such as Craigslist.  Basic jammers can set you back around $200 to 300 USD.
 
The growing popular uses of jammers are broadly covered by the trio of mentioned incidents -- policing customers, employees, or family members in a building; escaping GPS tracking (e.g. car thieves or people looking to avoid employer scrutiny); or trying to play vigilante and crack down on those using cell phones on the roads.

Craiglist jammer
Cell phone jammers such as this one are often found on Craigslist. [Image Source: Craigslist]

Jammers have been frequently portrayed in television or movie dramas and are commonly used in military conflicts, as well as by police and other law enforcement officials.  However, unauthorized citizen use was not widespread until recently when the growth internet commerce made it easy to buy such mildly-illegal goods ("mild" in the sense that they carry only civil penalties at present for sales and purchase).
 
Some jammers can block signals up to 5 miles away.
 
While the FCC can currently crack down on use of jammers via fines, it lacks the authority to file criminal charges against those who jam.  Thus, for now a small but growing number of Americans will likely continue to look to jam for causes ranging from crime to vigilante justice.  

Sources: FCC [press release], Tampa Bay Tribune





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