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Disruptive technology countermeasures become available to everyman, terrorist and distressed passenger alike


No future wireless device can be responsibly designed and deployed without active, extensive consideration of the means and motivations for taking it down—and active defense, despite the resulting cost and complexity… The same kind of happy innocence that informed the early design of the Internet is also built into most of our wireless products, and it's made them—so far—inexpensive and easy to use… One has to wonder if we'll someday look back at the early '00s as a brief Gilded Age of cable-free convenience—before our wireless systems all had to be armored in cumbersome defensive measures, both concrete and abstract.

Disruptive Tech Gets Scary has both useful and misleading trend lines. I do agree that as logic and transmitter costs continue to drop, and as someone will invariably want to shut down a nearby telecom device for one of many reasons, that we will see growth in active countermeasures devices such as:

  • TV-B-Gone broadcasts "remote control power-switching codes from the same database that's built into any off-the-shelf universal remote control. Within a minute of activation, it will usually hit the infrared pulse code (or codes) to turn off any nearby TV unit."
  • Cell-Block-R exploits a cell phone protocol feature by appearing to be "the best available network access point" to any nearby cell phone. "The cell phone locks on to the blocker" and is effectively disabled until it leaves the transmission range of the blocker.

The first is light, small, and inexpensive while the latter is comparatively bulky (briefcase to laptop charger in size). "If you happen to have other devices in the area that use one of those codes, either by choice or by accident, then welcome to the world of collateral damage" and that applies to "communications devices, pacemakers or other electronic equipment."

It appears that the manufacturers in the US are increasingly able to avoid conflict with the Communications Act of 1934 which states that, "No person shall willfully or maliciously interfere with or cause interference to any radio communications of any station licensed or authorized by or under this Act or operated by the United States Government." by avoiding any interference to a licensed radio station and merely communicating under 'false pretences' instead of jamming.

Cell phones and TV receivers are appliances, and their designers are obligated to take the world as they find it in terms of surrounding signals. That world, like any ecosystem, initially had no enemies that targeted these emergent species, but, over time, nature always seems to evolve new predators for new prey.

If the law changes to expand the scope of the Communications Act, it will only affect the honest but overwrought and not the terrorist or criminal. I would at least expect to see a trajectory similar to the cat and mouse game of police radar jammers. It is sad to think of personal convenience devices having to go the way of many microwave transmission system that are being replaced by fiber optic networks so as to avoid interference and interception, but that may be a future possibility.

An active defense, more precisely counter-countermeasures, will have to enter into the design criteria for future generations, if not immediately next generations.  (One also wonders about add-ons to legacy equipment.)

I do, however, disagree with two of the author's contentions and supporting rationale that EMP (electromagnetic pulse) and HERF (high-energy radio frequency) weapons will not play a part in "the terrorist arsenal."

  • "Conventional bombs and guns are cheaper to build or buy, and much more terrifying" -- an EMP or HERF devices are becoming increasingly cheaper to build. See COTS electromagnetic weapons from simple dual-use items. These devices may well be an enabler to a terrorist/criminal action and not the primary destructive payload.
  • "EMP and HERF are electronic Godzillas, able to stomp on an entire building but also easily detected" -- these devices do not have to be large to have an effect. Similarly, the smaller devices noted above can be used in a swarm mode that allows they to inexpensively blanket a larger area.

Think of the desired effect and then shape the technology to achieve it.

Disruptive Tech Gets Scary
By Peter Coffee
November 1, 2004

New Service Aims at In-Flight Use of Cell Phones
By Guy Kewney
September 22, 2004

Gordon Housworth

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