US gets jitters over in-flight mobes
Hi, I'm on the plane. Is Osama available?
Comment America's regulators are currently running around in circles over the issue of in-flight mobile phone calls. Transcripts of the latest Congress hearings show that experts are equally afraid that they will work, and at the same time, that they won't work.
The transcripts also show that the Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) will not permit phones in planes until at least the end of 2006, when it will have completed a study. And finally, the "anti-noise lobby" is still insisting that phones are somehow noisier than aircraft engines, and would create an unbearable nuisance.
The hearings, in a section covering "National Security Implications" reveal that since 1991, FCC regulations have prohibited the use of certain cellular phones and wireless communications devices on aircraft out of concern that such devices interfere with ground-based cellular phone networks.
In other words, cellphones work in aircraft, but it's a nuisance. Fair enough. But then: "Although passengers used cell phones during the 9/11 hijackings to contact family and friends and provide updates to law enforcement officials," the transcript reports (yes, cellphones work in planes!) "the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and the Department of Justice (DOJ) raised several national security-related concerns in their joint comments to the FCC about cell phone use on aircraft.
These concerns seem to be based on the assumption that either, they don't work - and should not be allowed to work! - or that they do work, and may be abused.
DHS and DOJ maintained that the use of personal cell phones onboard aircraft could potentially facilitate a coordinated attack between:
- a person on the aircraft and a person on the ground;
- persons traveling on different aircraft; and/or
- persons traveling on the same aircraft located in different sections of the cabin, who could communicate with one another using their personal wireless telephones.
Is the security lobby worrying about current technology? If so, these things are all possible already. Do they expect that the current ban would mean that terrorists would feel too ashamed of breaking the law to use phones to crash planes? Apparently no: they fear that there will be no bureaucratic record of what they did:
"Due to these concerns, DHS and DOJ requested that the FCC require that all wireless/air-to-ground carriers/pico cell providers: (1) create and maintain the capability to record (and do record) at some central, land-based storage facility located within the United States, at a minimum, non-content call records relating to all calls processed to and from wireless telephones onboard aircraft; (2) maintain the ability to interrupt and redirect a communication in progress on a given aircraft; (3) provide the ability to transmit emergency law enforcement/public safety information to airborne and terrestrial resources; and (4) provide law enforcement with immediate access to call records upon lawful request."
In other words, the authorities aren't sure how picocells work, and are assuming that they operate without reference to normal network call control or billing algorithms, allowing seat 11K to make surreptitious calls to seat 45A without checking with the network to see if they have paid their bills.
Alternatively, the security forces are asking for powers which cannot be given in aircraft, without also giving them for the whole mobile network. If it is indeed true that today, a network cannot be asked to switch a call, or terminate it, by the security forces, then this would give the spooks that power.
How could it be restricted to in-flight calls? - it couldn't.
There's no mention in this transcript of VoIP. Several airlines already provide Wi-Fi services to passengers, and more are going ahead. Are the experts unaware of the ability to send and receive calls over Skype or SIP phones?
"DHS and DOJ also expressed concern that the potential for terrorists and other criminals to use communications devices as remote-controlled improvised explosive devices would be increased if air passengers were allowed to use personally owned wireless phones and similar communications devices in flight."
Finally Florida representative John Mica took it upon himself to make the "old fogey" vote official: "Over the past few years, the flying public has had to contend with an increasing amount of noise on aircraft from their seatmates, who travel with an array of portable electronic devices like this iPod and GameBoy portable video game."
Again, the security forces appear to think that terrorists and criminals would not do this without permission, and that if permission were withheld, they'd be reluctant to try. In fact, even if prohibition on "use" of phones in flight were enforced, it would require technology that isn't currently available, to detect whether a phone is switched on, or not. A phone wired to a bomb would work today, and if terrorists thought of it, the problem wouldn't be the phone part; it would be the basic problem of getting the bomb aboard undetected.
A bomb which could not be triggered by a cellphone could still be triggered by any ordinary RF signal from the ground; it's not apparent from this hearing whether the security authorities understand this.
As has been pointed out before, the authorities still appear to be under the illusion that the present ban on phone use in planes prevents phone use in planes.
As any regular flier can confirm, it doesn't. Most passengers will admit that on occasion, they've got off planes with their phone batteries flattened, because they forgot to switch off - or even sillier, they switched them on when they thought they were switching off, at the start of the flight.
Most aircrew, if questioned in situations where they can't be punished, will admit that their colleagues sometimes make phone calls while in flight.
Unless and until the FAA mandates technology to detect phone wireless signals in the aircraft and enforce its strict use, most flights will continue to take off with one or two - or more - working cellphones in the luggage racks and hold, and even in jacket pockets.
To talk or not to talk - that is the question
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