Cell Blocks

Cell Blocks

Cell Blocks

Science, technology, and life.
July 16 2009 11:04 AM

Cell Blocks

If you've ever seen a TV cop show, you know you're entitled to one phone call after you're busted. But that was before you could get unlimited, unmonitored calls from a cell phone chucked over a prison fence. Want to call your lawyer? The employees in your still-thriving drug business? A hit man to take out that witness who's scheduled to testify against you? The getaway driver you've hired to complete your escape? Thanks to prepaid, concealable, untraceable mobile communication devices, it's no problem.

William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.

Check out the latest numbers . Cell phones confiscated in federal prisons last year: more than 1,600. In Mississippi state prisons: more than 1,800. In California: more than 2,800.


Yesterday the Senate held a hearing to debate what to do about this. The bill on the table would authorize jamming of cell-phone signals in prisons. The wireless carriers' association, CTIA , showed up to testify against it. You can find good writeups and overviews from Matthew Lasar at Ars Technica , Ryan Singer at Wired 's Epicenter , and Chloe Albanesius at PC Magazine .

The industry's argument is that jamming could disrupt legitimate cell-phone use, including cops and firefighters, whereas more sophisticated methods would nail just the bad guys. I'm skeptical of the first argument but interested in the second. Cell phones in prison, like IEDs in war and submersibles in drug-running , are part of a technology arms race. You can't win such races with sheer force, killing civilians or causing other collateral damage. You need precision.

Steve Largent, CTIA's president, proposed two alternatives to jamming. First,

With cell detection systems, prison administrators and correctional officers can detect, locate, and confiscate unauthorized wireless devices found in a correctional environment. Confiscated wireless devices can provider correctional authorities and law enforcement with call records, address information, and even photographs that can assist in disciplinary actions and criminal prosecutions. Alternatively, once illicit devices have been detected, prison officials and law enforcement may decide to leave them in place and arrange to monitor them in accordance with the wiretap statutes.



another promising technological solution to this problem involves the use of managed access. This approach enables a corrections facility to manage wireless access in a controlled area, such as a prison. Managed access would restrict communications on the commercial wireless networks to only a subset of allowed users (also known as a "white-list"). Other users are blocked from the commercial system access in the area.

I like both ideas. But are they ready to deploy? Largent told the committee:

Just last week, CTIA convened a day-long meeting involving North American vendors of cell detection and managed access solutions and engineers from a number of CTIA's carrier members to discuss potential solutions to this issue. We hope our efforts will put the industry in a position to trial alternative solutions in partnership with various states ...

Good for you, CTIA. But I don't believe for a minute that you'd be working hard on these alternatives if you weren't facing the threat of federally authorized jamming. And this is one reason why I'm not a pure libertarian. Can technology help the good guys stay ahead in the cell-phone arms race? Yes. Is industry better than government at coming up with creative, pinpoint solutions? Yes. Will industry do this without the threat of clumsy, burdensome government intervention? No.

So thank you, senators, for applying the heat. And don't forget the same lesson as you're legislating health care reform . Government-run alternatives don't always have to outperform private industry. They just have to scare it.