Homeland Security reductio ad absurdum

On occasion I receive notes from readers who say that I should check out something or other related to homeland security. While I don’t have the time to post every one of them, on occasion I get one that really needs to be addressed.

So it was that a reader pointed me to Howard Melamed, CEO of CellAntenna Corporation, who has proposed that governments prohibit mobile phone service in tunnels and jam signals at public events such as football games.

I had intended to reply privately that Melamed was nuts, but I suspect everyone could benefit from knowing why.

First, Melamed’s company stands to benefit financially if governments start jamming wireless phone signals. His company not only makes cell phone antennas, it also makes cell phone jamming equipment.

“To not allow first responders, state and local law enforcement officers the option of using this technology in the event of a terrorist threat or attack places the physical safety of the public, as well as that of our protectors, in jeopardy,” Melamed has said. “This is about saving lives. Government acts should further the public interests, and in a post-9/11 world, radio frequency jamming technology is a crucially important tool in the fight against terrorism.”

Second, it’s pretty clear he’s out of his mind on homeland security issues.

The fact is simple: Jamming cell phones would certainly prevent someone from using a cell phone to detonate a bomb, but a cell phone simply isn’t necessary to detonate a bomb! Sure, it has that cool factor, but in the end, it’s about whether the bomb goes off at all.

There are a two basic approaches to remotely detonating a bomb. One is a timer. Even if you eliminate, as Melamed proposed, alarm clock functions of cell phones, you still have to contend with plain old digital clocks, which you can find for a few dollars in any common grocery or drug store. Should we ban digital clocks? Or, for that matter, every electronic device which has a timing function? (That is virtually every electronic device.)

And fancy electronics certainly aren’t necessary either. You could use a mechanical timer, for instance. It’s maybe a step backward in technology, but it’s effective. It’s pretty clear we need to ban analog clocks, too.

But then an enterprising terrorist could build a nice mechanical timer from a few common parts found at the hardware store, so we’re just going to have to ban do-it-yourself home repairs. It’s for homeland security! You don’t want a bomb to go off, do you?

The second basic approach to remotely detonating a bomb is by radio control. The idea of calling a cell phone is a variant of this idea. But it’s by no means the only one. One could use GMRS radios, for instance, which are cheap and easy to acquire. Some IEDs in Iraq have been detonated using this method. Maybe we should ban GMRS radios. And, for that matter, anything that transmits.

We’ll be perfectly safe from those bombs — right up until We the People need those radios for responding to the next hurricane or terrorist attack. What, did you think FEMA was going to be there to save you?

Or until the enterprising terrorist figures out how to make a bomb that detonates when the local radio station plays Britney Spears. And now it’s time to ban all radios.

Pretty soon we’ve banned ourselves back to the Stone Age, and the terrorists are still out there, they still have their hate and they still plan to kill.

“Again and again, we hear the argument that a particular technology can be used for bad things, so we have to ban or control it,” says real security expert Bruce Schneier. “The problem is that when we ban or control a technology, we also deny ourselves some of the good things it can be used for.”

Banning this, that or the other thing won’t solve the problem of terrorism. It won’t make us any safer, but it will make our lives much more inconvenient. Only addressing the root causes of terrorism will ultimately stop it.